A Senate committee bill passed this month would give the Department of Health and Human Services two years to build a network that would detect catastrophic disease outbreaks.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the bill, S. 3678, which would shift the responsibility for public health and emergency medical programs to HHS. The Homeland Security Department is currently in charge of those programs, including the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS).
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), sponsored the bill, which won support from Democrats and Republicans.
It calls for HHS to "establish a near real-time electronic nationwide public health situational awareness capability," linking existing state systems. It would collect data from sources volunteering to supply it, including public health departments, federal health agencies, biosurveillance systems, health care providers and laboratories.
The bill would authorize a new grants program for states and other entities, amounting to $102 million in the coming year. It sets aside $35 million of the $102 million specifically for biosurveillance. Funding for other emergency medical programs would bring total spending to more than $1 billion a year.
When DHS was created in 2003, it took over primary responsibility for NDMS, the national drug stockpile and other elements of national medical response to emergencies. The department was supposed to work with HHS, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has continued to work in this area.
The bill is a partial response to the disorganization that marked the medical response to Hurricane Katrina last September. The committee's Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness Subcommittee, which Burr heads, held a July 14 field hearing in New Orleans to learn more about the disaster.