HHS should develop a plan for health screening and monitoring services for disaster responders that incorporates the lessons learned from the health programs developed after Sept. 11, 2001, the Government Accountability Office recommended in a new report. After the terrorist attacks, Congress appropriated more than $8 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for response and recovery activities, and HHS received some of the funding to establish health screening and monitoring programs for responders to the disaster. Later, HHS received more money to fund treatment. According to the GAO, about $369.2 million has been appropriated or awarded for World Trade Center health programs.
In its new report, the GAO said that it identified the following five lessons from those programs: registering all responders during a response to a disaster could improve implementation of screening and monitoring programs; designing and implementing such programs that foster the ability to conduct epidemiologic research could improve the understanding of health effects that responders experience and also help determine ongoing monitoring; providing timely mental health screening that is integrated with physical health screening could improve the ability to diagnose conditions accurately and prevent more serious mental conditions from developing; including a treatment-referral process could improve the ability of responders to gain access to needed treatment; and making comparable services available to all responders, regardless of their employer or geographic location, could ensure more equitable access to services for responders and help ensure that data are both consistent and comprehensive.
In the absence of a department-level plan, HHS National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health developed a proposal in February 2008 for a project to develop strategies to ensure responder safety and health, the report said. While GAO concluded that this proposal is a step in the right direction for addressing responder health issues, it noted that the proposal does not fully address the lessons that have been identified from the World Trade Center health programs.
In its comments on a draft of the GAOs report, HHS did not comment on the recommendation, according to the GAO. -- by Jessica Zigmond
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