How could anyone oppose a strong public health system – one with a mandate to protect everyone from such potential disasters such as smallpox or anthrax? Given the disastrous shape that the U.S. public health system is in, there is certainly a need to infuse millions of dollars into the system.
Prior to the World Trade Center disaster there were many proposals in Congress to rebuild the U.S. public health infrastructure. Years of underfunding and the drive to privatize many functions of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rendered state and local health departments almost helpless against the West Nile Virus, tuberculosis, measles and other threats to public health.
But, before Sept. 11, these calls were given almost no attention. Even during the economic upswing of the 1990s, few federal dollars were spent in public health. Why? In those days, the market system was seen as the method of delivering health care and preventing disease and illnesses.
The American Public Health Association issued warning after warning, but Congress turned its collective heads and thoughts toward the market/profit system. That decision was a total failure.
Like most things these days, what you see is not what you will get. For example, the Bush administration’s Model States Emergency Health Powers Act is a proposal that must be opposed by health activists and everybody else.
Under this proposal, clearly inspired by Attorney General Ashcroft’s infatuation with attacks on civil liberties and support for military tribunals, people could be detained without a court order in the event of a “public health crisis” and isolated in stadiums or clinics and be denied the opportunity to challenge the decision. The proposal would shield health officers from legal liability, along with anyone working under their direction. Clearly, Bush officials are using the threat of bio-terror attacks as a cover for broader and more dangerous goals.
Small wonder that George Annas, of the Boston University School of Public Health, says, “This law threatens American citizens as if they are the enemy.”
Joanne Hustead, senior attorney at the Health Policy Project at Georgetown University, warns that the proposal abuses the definition of an emergency. She says it would allow collection and sharing of protected private health information under circumstances that do not, even remotely, involve bio-terrorism.
Mohammed Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said that organization will review the proposal when its executive committee meets in December. He sounded the theme voiced by health officers across the country – that public health officials need more resources and financial support than they do new legislation.
A counterproposal would be to simply provide the financial support to state and local health departments to deal with the increasing number of infectious diseases threatening our country: measles, tuberculosis and the continuing hazards of HIV/AIDS, among others.
If the public health infrastructure of our country, especially state and local health departments, are adequately funded, they will be able to deal with any bio-terrorism attack. And, at the same time everyone’s civil liberties and freedom will be protected.