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Nation's Health System Found Unready for Terror

WAHINGTON, D.C.-- The nation s public health system is not prepared to handle the mass casualties that would result from an act of terrorism, according to a study released yesterday.

PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute, a New York think tank that provides advice to doctors and hospitals, found that funds are insufficient to develop an effective response to a disaster.

We tend to think of such large-scale disasters as one-off events, yet a major disaster has occurred every week on average in the U.S. for the past 10 years, said Carter Pate, global and U.S. managing partner of health industries and government services at PricewaterhouseCoopers. The American public is relying on a fragmented medical system to miraculously mount a swift, well-orchestrated response. Until further planning takes place, we should not be surprised if the system fails next time.

In the six years since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress spent $7.7 billion on disaster-preparedness initiatives by public health agencies. Those funds aren t just shrinking, they are going in the wrong direction, according to the report. Specifically, hospital preparedness funding has declined steadily -- dropping to $766 million in 2006 from more than $850 million in 2005 -- while funding for the national stockpile of emergency medicines doubled to about $620 million in 2007.

Current funding levels allow eligible hospitals to receive federal grants of up to $82,500 this year.

Hospitals that receive the money are expected to arrange a communications system, a bed-tracking system and an evacuation plan, among other requirements. But hospital officials responding to the report said bringing their facilities into compliance with federal standards linked to the grants is too difficult.

We had been in a mode of ramping up our preparedness capabilities. States and localities had purchased a lot of equipment and supplies. Now with funding levels going down, we re looking at funding shifting into sustainment mode, said Melissa Sanders, leader of health care systems preparedness at the Department of Homeland Security.

The report is right on the money, said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Progress that the public health system made immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks has slowed, he said, leaving the system unfinished.

Because there are funding needs at both the federal and state levels, the public health system is not built for the long haul, Mr. Benjamin said. It can deal with short-term disasters but it is not a long-term disaster relief system.

Mr. Benjamin cited the lack of a national trauma system as a glaring need in the public health system.

I believe the largest threat comes from bombs, and we don t have a national trauma system in place for that kind of disaster, he said.


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