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Emergency Readiness in Peril Report: State, federal budget cutbacks can hurt response

WASHINGTON -- The economic crisis is jeopardizing the nation's ability to handle public-health emergencies and possible bioterrorist attacks, according to government leaders and a new report.

Federal and state governments are cutting programs that help communities respond to disease outbreaks, natural disasters and bioterrorism incidents, and that "could lead to a disaster for the nation's disaster preparedness," a report released Tuesday warns.

"The economic crisis could result in a serious rollback of the progress we've made since Sept. 11," 2001, said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a non-partisan research group. Federal funds are down, 11 states have already cut public-health budgets, and more could follow as the economic crisis worsens.

If emergency medical supplies are not maintained or if hospitals can't handle a huge influx of patients, the result will be more deaths and illnesses, Levi said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff underscored the concerns in an interview Tuesday with USA TODAY editors and reporters. His top concern, Chertoff said, is a "mass event: a big outbreak of plague or some other kind of biological weapon or a nuclear explosion."

"That's the area where the most work needs to be done," said Chertoff, who leaves the post next month. "If we don't consistently invest, we will have a problem."

Chertoff said it's difficult for government and private agencies to spend money to prepare for major attacks "because you're asking people to invest in something that they haven't seen yet -- or haven't seen since the anthrax attacks of 2001. Therefore, it seems less urgent than, how do we repair the schools today."

The economic crisis in the USA could undo years of investment, planning and research, the trust said.

In its sixth annual report card rating how well states are prepared to handle health emergencies, the group said "significant progress" has been made since the federal government began giving states and hospitals billions of dollars in 2002.

All 50 states now have a good plan to distribute emergency vaccines, antidotes and medications from federal stockpiles in an emergency, the trust said. In 2005, only seven states had good plans, the trust said.

Richard Besser, the physician who heads the office of terrorism and emergency response at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said "incredible accomplishments" have been made equipping states and communities to better handle health disasters. The CDC has given states $6.3 billion in grants. Besser said he shares the trust's concerns "that we could see a decline in the systems that we have built" and echoed the trust's call for more federal funds.

Even with the improvement, preparation varies widely from state to state. The trust says 34 states have bought adequate supplies of antiviral drugs to combat a flu pandemic. But 16 state supplies are inadequate, and some -- such as Colorado, Florida and Maine -- have minimal doses to give to their residents.

"Where you live will determine whether or not you will survive a flu pandemic," Levi said. He said the federal government should set standards for state emergency health preparation.

The trust also wants states to enact laws that limit the legal liability of businesses, non-profit organizations and health care workers that volunteer to help during a health emergency.

The trust gives the highest rating on preparation to Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The lowest ratings went to Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Montana and Nebraska.

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