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Swine Flu Exposes HHS Vacancies

By Ed O'Keefe

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Richard Besser, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs brief reporters on Swine Flu preparations on Sunday. (Photo by Mandel Ngan AFP/Getty)

Updated 2:31 p.m. ET

At Sunday afternoon's White House press briefing on the administration's efforts to combat and control a potential swine flu outbreak, press secretary Robert Gibbs was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, deputy national security adviser John Brennan, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acting director Dr. Richard Besser.

Noticeably absent on stage was a fully confirmed federal health care official: There was no health and human services secretary (Kathleen Sebelius could be confirmed as early as tomorrow), no surgeon general (no new candidate has emerged since Dr. Sanjay Gupta dropped out) and no fully confirmed director of CDC (though Besser deftly handled a series of morning show interviews earlier today).

"Our response is in no way hindered or hampered by not having a permanent secretary at HHS right now," Gibbs said at today's White House Press Briefing. "Dr. Besser and thousands of people both at CDC and throughout HHS are responding to this."

A review of The Washington Post's Head Count appointee tracking project finds that Obama has tapped five people for HHS jobs including Sebelius, but still needs to fill 15 other positions. When finally confirmed, they will hire staff to fill out other key roles across the federal health policy system.

Some observers agree that even without top leadership in place, HHS and the other federal agencies tasked with tracking swine flu employ thousands of experienced individuals fully capable of handling the potential crisis.

"In terms of the immediate response, we have plenty of career people in place that can step and do exactly what they should do in this situation," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a group focused on eliminating epidemics. The administration was smart to pick Besser as CDC acting director, Levi notes, since Besser used to run the agency's terrorism preparedness and emergency response unit. He's uniquely qualified to lead during this impending crisis, Levi added.

But ask any rank-and-file federal employee and they'll likely say that while an agency can operate without political appointees, they need those leaders to clearly define the mission, settle disagreements, coordinate efforts with other agencies and deliver a clear message to the public. In this case especially, the public message will matter. For his part, President Obama said earlier today that he's getting regular updates from the CDC and Napolitano.

"I’ve run big organizations and I know you need to be able to make strategic decisions. People in interim and temporary decisions can only make so many of them," said Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

"Building the team in the middle of an emergency is much more difficult than building a team in a time of calm," he said.

Both Levi and Benjamin agreed that the onus is now on Congress to quickly confirm Obama's HHS nominees.

The Senate Finance Committee will meet Thursday to consider the nomination of William V. Coor to serve as HHS deputy secretary. No word yet on the three other nominees awaiting hearings.

By Ed O'Keefe  | April 27, 2009; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Revolving Door  
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every country except the USA put out a alert and warning not to travel to Mexico. they all began screening incoming flight from Mexico or the USA using infrared sensors to detect passengers for fever. our over payed leaders just sat buy saying there isn't nothing to worry about what if it was small pox. by time they find out half the united states would be infected. im sorry but if this is how they will run health care it will be a expensive joke on us

Posted by: getsix1 | April 27, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

it figures...they are trying to blame the president and his administration.

it's an emergency situation folks.
this is the USA.
a director --in place--at HHS makes no difference AT THIS TIME.
the machine and the system will continue to work.

get off of it........blaming Barack for everything.
My God, next he will be blamed for the summer being too hot!!

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | April 27, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

As a low level federal employee I will disagree strongly that political appointees are necessary as author contends.

Posted by: jrwute42 | April 27, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

The more I read about the swine flu the scarier it gets. But I found this post by an exceptionally qualified doctor that I think puts everything in focus.

Posted by: mymapinfocom | April 27, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

this is also ---very much so--
a state issue.

look to your state first.
what are their resources? do they have it covered?

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | April 27, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

(babe falls off chair laughing)))

-it's monday
-i walked into my bathroom door this morning
-almost fell down the stairs trying to avoid the dog
-i spilled the coffee all over the counter
-i was late for work
-i'm fat and have to go on a diet.

DARN IT...I blame President Obama

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | April 27, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

HernandeUSA... are you for real? shame on u.

Posted by: Tejano2 | April 27, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

I wonder who it could be that's holding up the confirmations for these positions? Would it be the Republicans? Why I do believe so! It's no wonder that the people who are identifying themselves as Republicans has shrunk to a dismal 21% acording to the latest Washington Post poll. Now I wonder why that is?

Posted by: dre7861 | April 27, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

This piece could have actually done the public a service if it had told the truth about WHY HHS's top posts are still empty: the GOP in Congress is being their usual petulant, ridiculous selves in attempting to paint Kathleen Sibelius as some sort of abortion demon. Ain't that a surprise? Those people just get dumber every session.

Posted by: mistamatic | April 27, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

The Government is responsible for this getting in to the United States because they keep allowing illegals to come in unexamined. Not too long ago, Pelosi said border enforcement is unamerican, and allowing anyone in the country without the standard procedures and health exams allows for sickness to enter the country. It reminds me of the Muriel Boat lift under Carter that was responsible for bringing AIDS into America.

Posted by: rcvk7 | April 27, 2009 8:43 PM | Report abuse

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