Senate Democrats pressed the Bush administration's top health official to do more to better prepare the nation's health care system to respond to victims of bioterrorism.
Members of the Senate Government Reform Committee say American health care workers are not adequately trained to handle large numbers of victims of bioterrorism.
They also say federal agencies have yet to coordinate policies on responding to bioterrorist acts.
Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is chairman of the Government Reform Committee. His comments were directed at Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who was testifying before the committee. "The federal government I conclude is still a long way from where we need to be. In the longer term we need to build a more robust public health system with aggressive health surveillance programs to detect the onset of illnesses. We need better coordination, better support for state and local governments and their health care systems," he said.
Democratic Senator Max Cleland of Georgia agreed. "We cannot yet say that the public health sector is actually adequately prepared to deal with the public health implications of terrorism," he said.
Secretary Thompson acknowledged the nation has more to do to better prepare for a bioterrorist incident, but he said the administration is taking steps toward that end.
Mr. Thompson noted Mr. Bush is proposing a $4.3 billion budget next year to combat bioterrorism, a 45 percent increase over the current year. "This is the largest one-time investment in the American public health system ever," he said. "We are absolutely doing what it takes to make America secure, and working to ensure that our efforts are coordinated from the highest levels of the federal government to the most local levels of health care delivered."
Mr. Thompson said the budget includes $518 million to help hospitals deal with what he called 'surge capacity'. "Surge capacity means being able to take care of a minimum of 500 to 1,000 individuals immediately in case of an event such as a bioterrorist attack, such as anthrax, such as a chemical spill, a chemical terrorist attack, a nuclear attack," he said.
Mr. Thompson's testimony comes six months after a series of anthrax attacks in the United States. Anthrax-laced letters killed five people in Florida, New York, Connecticut and Washington. Letters containing anthrax were also delivered to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Mr. Thompson said the federal government is purchasing enough antibiotics to treat up to 20 million victims of anthrax exposure.