Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bioterrorism whistleblower at CDC

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has an extremely interesting article (brought to my attention by a reader: thanks) about congressional investigators looking at CDC's bioterrorism division as a result of a CDC whistle-blower's complaint they were wasting taxpayer money. The investigators are with Senator Charles Grassley's (R-Iowa) Finance Committee. Grassley, a conservative who is a demon on government waste, is a strong supporter of the Federal False Claims Act which gives whistleblowers a piece of recovered funds. (There is a great book about FFCA, complete with lots of dirt about the Frist family: Giant Killers by Henry Scammell.)
The committee's inquiry involves whether the CDC is able to show that taxpayers have gotten their money's worth from the billions of dollars in grants they awarded to local health officials to protect citizens from a bioterrorism attack, according to interviews with CDC officials. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, link hat tip Robert)
Both the director of the bioterrorism division and CDC Director Julie Gerberding are said to have met with Grassley last week in Washington. CDC has dumped about $3.6 billion on states since 2002, but most public health professionals don't think we are much better off. The use of the money to strengthen state and local public health infrastructure has been hampered by restrictions on what the use of the funds, resulting in often silly purchases of equipment that couldn't be used and technologies and consultant services that provide little value to public health. The complaint that some of this money is used to plug holes in local and state public health caused by budget cuts is misplaced. That's not a waste of money, that's a necessity if we want to prevent even further deterioration of our public health infrastructure.

There is a widespread perception in public health itself, however, that huge amounts of this money have been wasted and many of us would like to see where it really went. If this is just an inquiry into whether the money went to buy hazmat suits or maternal and child health services, that would be a shame. If it is a legitimate look at how the millions of dollars sloshing around made its way to questionable state vendors and lobby-promoted biotech scam artists, that's something else. Given the corruption of this Administration, it is a real question. Grassley is usually more interested in fraud and corruption rather than misplaced priorities, but we shall see. The nature and scope of his inquiry are not known yet.

Meanwhile the CDC employee who raised the issue of poor CDC oversight has been granted official whistleblower status, affording her some degree of protection against retaliation. In Gerberding's CDC this is a necessity, as the Director is known as someone who takes criticism poorly.

We'll keep our eye on this one.