WASHINGTON – Maryland’s health secretary said Thursday that state and local health departments nationwide need at least $1.1 billion in federal funding next year to prepare for public health threats such as bioterrorism.
Georges C. Benjamin joined other state and local health directors who said the $1.1 billion needs to be the first installment in a program of consistent, sustained funding over the next several years.
The officials — board members of three national health agencies that joined in a conference call Thursday — said the first step toward preparedness is building an infrastructure between local, state and federal health departments that can respond in a post-Sept. 11 world.
“We need to transform health departments from being able to deal with a single event to any range of events,” said Benjamin. He is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which hosted the teleconference with the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Association of Public Health Laboratories.
A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said she cannot comment on future funding. But Lisa Swenarski noted that Congress appropriated $865 million in fiscal 2002 to strengthen the state and local public health infrastructure in response to last year’s terrorist and anthrax attacks.
Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said he is pleased with the $865 million, but public health departments need ongoing financial support.
Health officials said Congress should consider the long view: Gas masks and Cipro alone are not the answer, they said.
“Congress understands buying the vaccine. We need staff to get the vaccine to the people,” said Mary C. Selecky, president-elect of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
The health officials worried they might not see much of the money appropriated for public health. Congress gives block grants to states, but only a fraction goes to health departments on a local level, they said.
Teleconference participants said their main priorities include creating an effective policy for health crisis response, improving laboratory surveillance and capacity, establishing communication within and among states, and having well-trained public health staff.
“By building an infrastructure around bioterrorism, we are building an infrastructure that protects public health from any threat,” said George E. Hardy, Jr., executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Benjamin said the money should not come at the cost of other public health programs. People still need basic health services such as clean drinking water and standard immunizations, he said, and “yo-yo funding” will only hurt all programs instead of helping some.