Sept. 22, 2005 -- Lawmakers are questioning the federal government's response to the health care crisis left by Hurricane Katrina even as Hurricane Rita gets closer to the Texas and Louisiana coast.
Rita threatens to once again test government disaster and public health operations that are now under scrutiny after a slow federal response to Katrina's impact on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas.
CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, told House members that the agency has shifted some response plans after difficulties encountered during Katrina's aftermath.
Change in Tactics
Officials have altered their tactics for deploying high-frequency radio antennas used by the CDC to communicate in areas with damaged infrastructure. Several parts of the communications system failed immediately following Katrina, though it was unclear how the failures affected operations.
"It did exist in New Orleans but they didn't have gasoline for the generators," Gerberding told a joint hearing of the House Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Commerce health subcommittee.
Gerberding said the agency had already taken several lessons from its experience with Katrina, including having more personnel trained to communicate health recommendations to members of the public. The agency also could have had more reliable plans in place for immunizations of storm evacuees, she said.
Still, it remained unlikely that any of those issues could be addressed in time to be applied to Rita, which is expected to make landfall early Saturday.
Health subcommittee chairman Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) questioned Gerberding over reports that bureaucratic slowdowns kept many medical volunteers who rushed to New Orleans from taking part in relief efforts. Deal suggested that credential checks and certifications required for federal volunteers should be done in advance of disasters to avoid delays.
"What we don't want is for people to flood in in a disorganized way," Gerberding said.
Disease Outbreaks Averted
Gerberding told lawmakers that widespread infectious disease outbreaks feared as a possible result of flooding and overcrowded conditions in shelters had been largely averted. Officials observed several outbreaks of norovirus and vibrio bacteria, both of which cause a diarrheal illness.
Injuries sustained during flooding and evacuations far outnumbered infectious diseases, she added.
"We have not seen widespread outbreaks of anything unusual," Gerberding said.
Thursday's hearing took place one day after a proposal from conservative Republicans to deeply cut federal health programs and other budget areas incensed House Democrats.
Paying for Katrina
The 89-member Republican Study Committee released a proposal yesterday calling for increases in Medicare beneficiary premiums and a one-year delay in the program's prescription drug benefit as ways to pay for Katrina relief and reconstruction efforts.
Estimates for the storm's overall cost have reached $200 billion, sending conservatives in Congress looking for ways to pay for federal aid.
The plan also calls for $25 billion in cuts to CDC's budget over 10 years.
"Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who leads the committee.
But the plan riled Democrats, who used Thursday's hearing to attack proposed cuts to health programs.
"This would be, if it happens, irresponsible, incompetent, and immoral," said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.)
Gerberding declined to comment directly on how the proposed budget cuts would affect her agency's ability to respond to disasters. "It's a sobering proposal," she said.