Md. among most prepared for health crisis, report says

Nonprofit group cautions that more work is needed

December 12, 2003|By CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Maryland is one of the best states in the nation when it comes to preparation for health emergencies like bioterrorism, but it still has a long way to go, according to a report released yesterday.

"The fact that the score was good is really good, but that doesn't mean we're finished," said Maryland Homeland Security Director Dennis Schrader. "We're going to keep hustling and continue to get better."

Maryland was one of only four states - along with California, Florida and Tennessee - to earn a score of seven out of 10 in the report by the Trust for America's Health. More than half the states scored between three and five in the report.

It evaluated states on various criteria, including their public health funding, whether they have a biosafety laboratory that could identify and stop the spread of health threats such as anthrax and whether they have a plan to deal with these emergencies. The report noted that Maryland increased overall health spending by 3 percent between fiscal 2002 and 2003 and upgraded its biosafety laboratories.

But the report said Maryland, like most states, does not have the personnel to administer emergency vaccinations. And it said that less than half of federal money allocated for health emergency preparedness actually made its way to local health departments.

Two years ago, Congress allocated $2 billion to battle bioterrorism, but that money goes to states first and local health departments later.

"What happens is a lot of money gets gobbled up in the bureaucracy," said Heather Moeder Molino, a spokeswoman for Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat. "By the time it gets to the county, half of it's gone."

Molino said Ruppersberger is still trying to get more federal money for emergency response, however, and has cosponsored a bill to establish national guidelines for emergency preparedness.

Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, agreed with Ruppersberger. After nearly two decades of neglecting the public health system, $2 billion is not enough to boost the nation's preparedness level, she said.

"We have a long way to go, and there's no indication that Congress can slap itself on the back and walk off," Hearne said.

The trust describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on disease prevention and public health. Board members include academics, hospital executives and officials from state and local health departments around the country, among others.

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