Tom Ridge, head of the White House’s Homeland Security Office, says that new anti-terrorist rules and regulations will not infringe on the health rights of people. He uses a new term, “tear line,” to refer to the line between the demands of anti-terrorist rules and people’s rights. In this case the federal department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stands to lose important activities.

Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Civilian Bio-Defense Strategies at John Hopkins University, and former pro-people head of Clinton’s Department of Energy, warns, “it is not clear on how the public health and homeland security objective will be balanced.”

She is not alone. Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says that more effort must be spent beefing up local, state and national public health offices. He was referring to the woefully deficient professional expertise that these health departments have in the area of infectious diseases, let alone the anthrax scare following Sept. 11, 2001. Both Akhter and O’Toole agree that to divide what needs to be bolstered doesn’t make any sense.

O’Toole cited the problems of shifting the responsibilities of food safety from the Food and Drug Administration to the Homeland Security agency. Confusion has already set in with regard to the approval of treatment of and vaccination against bioterrorism. Ridge’s agency could conceivably take over all of these functions, a really worrisome idea.

Under the proposal, HHS would continue to determine what supplies should be included in the pharmaceutical stockpile. But, Ridge’s agency would decide when and where to deploy them, including for natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and natural disease outbreaks.

Even more to the point, Ridge’s agency would be operationally in control over medical professional teams from around the country that, heretofore, were controlled by medical professionals at HHS. These would include nurses, doctors, mental-health professionals and other workers.

The Ridge White House agency is seeking to have all of these new arrangements in place by September 11, 2002.The rush is part of the strategy to get as much power into this new agency as possible.

Fortunately, HHS advocates in Congress are raising questions, but more needs to be done.

Ridge is also seeking to gain control over an already unfair State Department immigration agency. The difference is that civil liberties lawyers and immigration activists have learned through the years how to force the State Department to conduct its affairs in a reasonably fair manner. This will not be the case if immigration affairs are taken over by Ridge/Bush. Ridge’s Homeland Security will surely take advantage of the fears of people to escalate the attack on all immigrants. This is especially important since for medical and public health professionals and advocates fighting to gain health rights for all, especially all immigrants. The Ridge/Bush attack will be sure to retard that progress.

Congress is in recess until Labor Day. What better time to contact your Representative and Senators to protest this Ridge/Bush takeover of crucial public health functions?

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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