The government is dangerously behind on plans to build mobile field hospitals that could be needed to treat thousands of sick and dying victims of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, according to doctors in the government’s medical response program, former top disaster officials and some members of Congress.
The Homeland Security Department, which runs the nation’s disaster response system, “by and large has not been serious about the medical issues,” said Jerome Hauer, former head of the federal Office of Public Health Preparedness.
“They don’t get the notion that during a disaster one of the fundamental needs is taking care of the large number of patients,” he said.
One example is Homeland Security’s failure to complete a prototype of a 250-bed field hospital.
More than four years after Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks prompted warnings of bioterrorism, eight months after Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans hospitals and as a possible bird flu pandemic looms, the government still has not set standards for what mobile hospitals should stock or how they should operate.
Although $20 million was set aside for the project in fiscal 2005 under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of Homeland Security, Congress cut funding in fiscal 2006 before it was done.
“There is a broad consensus that (mobile hospitals) are needed for our federal medical response,” said Jeffrey Lowell, who was chief medical adviser to former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. To develop a prototype and standards, “we’re talking chump change in terms of federal dollars.”
Bennet Waters of Homeland Security’s medical office, said the agency “recognizes the need for these capabilities” and will complete the prototype.