Hearing Tackles Medical Preparedness for Mass Casualty Event
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 26, 2004 The 9/11 Commission report failed to allow for immediate medical response in the event that the next attack on the homeland resulted in mass casualties, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said during a hearing here today.
But while the commission's report may have failed to take this scenario into account, the Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command based at Fort Detrick, Md., and the Veterans Affairs Department have not. Each agency has been making provisions for just such a catastrophe.
Maj. Gen. Lester Martinez-Lopez, USAMRMC commanding general, told the committee in a hearing today that his organization is the cornerstone of a national interagency biodefense campus at Fort Detrick. An interagency master plan has been developed and construction has already started, he added.
A collaboration among USAMRMC, and the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security and Agriculture, the campus will be the nation's primary center for development of defenses against biological terrorist attacks.
"These agencies have complementary programs and specific expertise that through this interagency partnership will compress the discovery cycle," Martinez-Lopez said.
USAMRMC also is a key trainer of first responders, military and civilian care providers and other personnel through its medical management of chemical and biological casualty course. Through on-site, online and satellite-transmitted distance learning courses, USAMRMC has trained more than 134,000 people globally, Martinez-Lopez said. That figure includes more than 58,000 military, 75,000 civilians and 1,000 public health service personnel.
He added that USAMRMC is heavily involved in the National Laboratory Response Network. Established in 1999 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, the FBI and USAMRMC, the network builds on a longstanding, nationwide system of public health laboratories that conduct routine surveillance. The network ensures a rapid recognition and reporting of clusters of suspicious symptoms that could indicate a biological attack.
The next version of this program will track military and civilian outpatient visits, over-the-counter prescription drug sales, school absenteeism and animal health care data in support of the same objective.
"The VA is seen as an essential part of any planned response to an attack using weapons of mass destruction," Smith said. Adding that conclusions drawn from hearings in 2001 and 2002 and more recent discussions indicated that VA is the only federal agency capable of assembling the large numbers of individuals needed to treat mass casualties. Others may volunteer, but they cannot be ordered to assist.
Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Gordon H. Mansfield said the agency is doing its part to prepare for such an event.
After the 9/11 Commission report, the VA reorganized to provide comprehensive all-hazards approach to emergency management, Mansfield said.
"We established an office of operations and readiness within the office of the assistant secretary for Policy, Panning and Preparedness, which has focused our collaboration with other federal, state and local agencies," he said.
The agency, according to the deputy secretary, also has pledged significant resources to emergency preparedness training, education and exercises as well as studies and evaluations. The VA's fiscal 2005 budget includes a request for $297 million, up from $84.5 million in fiscal 2002.
Smith acknowledged that VA sees its preparedness in more narrow terms, as it hasn't received the authority or the resources to carry out any broader function.
"While VA's primary responsibility in the event of an emergency is to ensure the safety of our patients, personnel and assets," Mansfield said. "We have a number of national level responsibilities, including principal health care backup for the military in the event of a national emergency."
Martinez-Lopez summed up the efforts being made to ensure the United States is prepared in the event of a mass casualty event during his testimony.
"Many agencies are working closely together to ensure that our nation is medically prepared to respond to an attack on the homeland," he said. "There is much work to be done, but I'm confident that we're headed in the right direction."