APHA director calls for additional emergency preparedness

The executive director of the American Public Health Association testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications on June 6 on the subject of public health emergency preparedness.

Georges C. Benjamin said that while many investments into public health preparedness and response were made after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, achieving optimal preparedness is still a long way off. His testimony sought to clarify aspects of the 2012 National Preparedness Report issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"There is one area of the report however, that does require more detail to give the committee a fuller understanding of the nation's level of public health and medical preparedness," Benjamin said. "That area is found on page 47 where a key finding of the reports notes 'The nation has built a highly respected public health capability for managing incidents, but recent reductions in public health funding and personnel have impacted these capabilities.' I would like to give a more complete explanation about the impact that current funding and workforce reductions have on the ability of the public health system to respond not only to public health emergencies, but also to undertake the day-to-day responsibilities that keep our communities safe and healthy."

Benjamin was the secretary of health for the state of Maryland in October 2001 during the anthrax attacks. Key lessons he said he learned from the experience were that a good plan is a major first step, disease response knows no borders, delivering countermeasures is a complex process, communication is of extreme importance, preparedness is the secondary job of multiple professionals for surge capacity and a robust national public health laboratory is of extreme importance.

Benjamin also spoke of the eroding public health workforce caused by painful budget cuts, the so-called "yo-yo funding" in which funding continues until improved health outcomes occur followed by a decrease in funding and results, and the issues caused in local public health agencies when the Strategic National Stockpile loses funding.

"We must have a robust public health system with adequate levels of personnel who are well trained and properly equipped to address a variety of public health threats," Benjamin said. "Additionally, the ability to generate immediate surge capacity by using an 'all hands on deck' and 'whole of community' approach is essential and requires a better recognition of the role other components of the public health system plays in preparedness. Funding is tight at all levels of government but as the economy recovers and we begin to make new strategic investments in homeland defense, Congress must make funding the public health system a top priority. Protecting the public's health is a matter of national security."