Establishing A Public Health Response System To Prepare For The Long-Term Health Effects Of The Oil Spill

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My CAP colleagues Ellen-Marie Whelan and Leslie Russell are out with a new report arguing that the federal government needs to establish a better public
health response plan to address the long term health consequences of the BP oil spill and future health emergencies. When it comes to the oil spill, Whelan and Russell are concerned about three things: 1) how the actual oil will effect the workers in charge of cleaning it up, 2) what effect burning off the oil will have on workers and the surrounding communities, and 3) what effect the dispersant used to help the oil evaporate easier will have on workers and the surrounding communities.

Since there is no master plan to synchronize the government’s response to the health care consequences from the spill, Whelan and Russell “propose the creation and implementation of a Public Health Response Plan,” an initiative under the direction of the Assistant Secretary for Health [ASH] that would ensure that all of the relevant federal agencies coordinate their response. ASH would oversee the effort and decide which agencies would address the initial health ramifications from the spill and which would be charged with monitoring the long-term health effects.

Watch their explanation here:

The plan would streamline the work of federal agencies rather than creating a new bureaucracy. In this case, the CDC “would be at the center of this plan to respond to workers in potentially dangerous situations and begin the process of monitoring the exposed population and tracking data,” the report notes. “As other agencies such as the FDA, NDMS, and SAMHSA enter the scene, instead of functioning in isolation they would be added as new team members with the ASH responsible for making sure they are all working seamlessly, with different agencies assuming different roles over time.” Whelan and Russell see this as “as a series of concentric circles with each of the circles representing a different agency or office”:

The innermost circle represents the first agency or office that responds to the potential crisis and each additional circle signifies another agency as it is determined their expertise is required to address the developing crisis. Each agency continues to have a defined, specific response, but collectively they represent a far more coordinated effort.

But all of this will require more funding than the $20 billion “Claims and Escrow” fund BP has already set aside. Whelan and Russell describe the fund as “a down payment” and argue that “sufficient funds should also be placed into an escrow account to provide for the long-term monitoring and future health services needs” — a number that is certainly undefined.

The Secretary of HHS has discretion to delegate ASH as the supervising authority to oversee the response and so it seems that the government can adopt this plan within existing law. What’s clear is that the federal government seems to be the only entity with the ability to monitor the long term health consequences of the spill. BP should not be trusted to handle this task.