Thursday, October 06, 2005

Pandemic flu crony

It has taken a long time for the Bush Administration to wake up to the threat of pandemic influenza. It has taken the Democrats just as long to wake up to the political implications of Bush's negligence.
Democrats in Congress on Wednesday stepped up their criticism of the Bush administration’s preparation for a possible influenza pandemic and called for the creation of a White House czar to oversee the nation’s readiness and response.

“The administration has failed to prepare adequately for a flu pandemic,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said. “The danger of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was ignored until it was too late. We can’t make the same mistake with pandemic flu.”

Kennedy and other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, introduced legislation to establish a White House “director of pandemic preparedness and response.” (MSNBC)
I guess they don't know that there is already a pandemic czar. Another Bush crony appointment, one Tommy Thompson dragged along from Wisconsin when he became DHHS Secretary in 2001. Tommy's gone but Stewart Simonson, Thompson's former legal counsel when he was governor of Wisconsin is still there. As the Assistant Scretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness (ASPHEP) Simonson is the point man for the federal response to a pandemic (via the blog, Transparent Grid). The recent tularemia screw-up was under Simonson, whose official job is coordinate "interagency activities between HHS, other federal departments, agencies, offices and state and local officials responsible for emergency preparedness and the protection of the civilian population from acts of bioterrorism and other public health emergencies."

Simonson's official bio tells us that before serving Thompson he was corporate secretary and counsel for AMTRAK. At DHHS he replaced a genuine expert, Jerome Hauer, who had served as Director of Emergency Management for New York City. And Hauer doesn't think that much of him:
Speaking as part of a biodefense panel in Washington, D.C. Dec. 15, Jerome Hauer, formerly the Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness (ASPHEP) at HHS, said the $877 million contract awarded to VaxGen to produce a new anthrax vaccine was insufficient. He also insinuated poor policymaking has left the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction.

Hauer faulted the current management at the ASPHEP Office, including acting secretary Stewart Simonson, for not being better prepared to handle its duties. He called for the creation of a new federal office to coordinate U.S. biodefense activities.


“The decisions being made do not appear to have a sound basis,” said Hauer, currently senior
vice president of government relations for consulting firm Fleishman-Hillard.
Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman pointed to Simonson as one of several examples of Bush cronyism, noting his sorry performance on influenza as an example of his lack of qualifications:
At a House Government Reform hearing on July 14, 2005, Mr. Simonson claimed he had sufficient funds to purchase influenza vaccine and antiviral medication for the nation.8 The next day, his office submitted a funding request to Congress seeking an additional $150 million for flu vaccine and antiviral medication. (Waxman Fact Sheet [.pdf])
But Republicans aren't comfortable with his performance, either.
Noting that the flu can be lethal to some populations such as the elderly, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the country was unprepared to deal with a possible flu pandemic.

Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary in the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Health and Human Services Department, stopped short of agreeing with Craig's assessment, but said "it would pose an enormous challenge."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Gregg also questioned if the process used by Simonson's office to award vaccine development contracts ensured open competition and delivery to prevent a vaccine shortfall.

"Are we creating the same situation with anthrax?" Gregg asked, referring to the flu vaccine shortfall last winter. (, Daily Briefing)
So business as usual, pandemic threat or no pandemic threat. If this President tries to keep us any safer, we'll all be dead.