Swine Flu Exposes HHS Vacancies
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.
| April 27, 2009; 1:35 PM ET
Categories: Agencies and Departments, Revolving Door
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