In a high-profile speech at the National Institutes of Health, surrounded by a number of cabinet officials, including Secretary of State Condi Rice, and the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Agriculture, Health & Human Services, Transportation and Veteran Affairs, President Bush warned that H5N1 (commonly known as "Avian Bird Flu") could, in time, reach our shores. "A pandemic is a lot like a fire -- a forest fire," Bush said. "If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it."
He later asked Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for a flu epidemic "that health experts believe," San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Lazarus noted, "would likely kill millions."
Skeptics might argue that the President's warning sounds suspiciously like those post 9/11 anthrax scares, and are aimed at taking the public's attention away from the many failures bedeviling his administration. Others may argue that whether the threat is real or not, it is guaranteed to be a boon for the already profit-stuffed pharmaceutical industry. Some may take the president's forewarning of potential disaster at face value.
Whatever your take, a pandemic of the kind currently discussed by public health officials could overwhelm an unprepared health care system, cost billions of dollars and cause an untold number of deaths.
Having performed so wretchedly during the run-up to, and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one might expect that Team Bush would seek out someone fully versed in public health matters to head up the team charged with responding to as huge a potential public health threat as Avian Bird Flu.
Who is in charge of handling significant health care and threats of bioterrorism?
As Assistant Secretary for Public Health and Emergency Preparedness, Department of Health and Human Services Simonson turned up as number seven on The New Republic's recently published list of 15 Team Bush hacks -- those with "waifish resumes padded like the Michelin man, whose political connections have won them important national responsibilities."
Simonson's name also found its way onto Fact Sheet prepared by Rep. Henry Waxman's entitled "Cronyism in the Bush Administration," that the Democrat from California issued in late September.
Before coming to HHS in 2001, Simonson was a top official at long suffering Amtrak. Prior to his service at Amtrak, Simonson advised then-Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, on crime and prison policy issues. In 2001, when Thompson became Bush's first HHS secretary, he brought Simonson on board as a legal adviser. He was promoted to his current post shortly before leaving the Thomspson left the Department last year.
Simonson replaced Jerome Hauer, whose resume -- provided by Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals, for whom he serves as a member of its Board of Directors -- states that he "is recognized as one of the nation's leading experts on bioterrorism and emergency preparedness."
Simonson's official biography points out that he is "the Health and Human Services Department's point man 'on matters related to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.'"
It also boasts that he "'supervised policy development for Project BioShield,' a program designed to speed the manufacture of crucial vaccines and antidotes." According to a recent report in The Washington Post, the program "has by most accounts bogged down and shown few results."
Is the man that Beth Quinn, a columnist with the Middletown, NY-based Times Herald-Record, recently dubbed "the Michael Brown [the former head of the Federal Emergency Manangemnt Agency] of the killer flu," the right person to guide the country through a massive health crisis?
SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media & Democracy noted out that in April 2004, HHS' Thompson said that Simonson had "focused on public health preparedness issues" and was "a key member of the HHS team" since before 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. Simonson's "understanding of the HHS role in homeland security and familiarity with the challenges we face make him an ideal choice to lead our Public Health Emergency Preparedness Office at this important time," Thompson said.
That account differed from Jerome Hauer'sa assessment. In a December 2004 article in the Washington Drug Letter, Hauer was harshly critical of Simonson.
In mid-December of last year, while taking part in a Washington, D.C. panel on biodefense in Washington, Hauer said that the "$877 million contract awarded to VaxGen to produce a new anthrax vaccine was insufficient." He seemed to indicate that "poor policymaking" is leaving "the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction."
Hauer added that the current management at the ASPHEP Office, including acting secretary Stewart Simonson, was not prepared to handle its duties. And he called for a new federal office to coordinate U.S. biodefense activities. "The decisions being made do not appear to have a sound basis," Hauer said.
Senate Republicans have also expressed coincern about Simonson's ability to do the job. Noting that the flu can be lethal to some populations such as the elderly, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), said the country appeared to be was unprepared to deal with a possible flu pandemic. Simonson responded by saying that "it would pose an enormous challenge."
The Lonewacko Blog acerbically pointed out that Simonson is "obviously qualified if we have an outbreak of litigation." And Douglas Drenkow, a researcher, writer, and political commentator, summed up the situation in a recent column posted at OpEdNews.com: "The person in charge of our country's public health -- in the event of any sort of bio-emergency is a lawyer, not a doctor or anyone else with an iota of formal training in the field."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Thanks to Laura Ross for her research assistance.
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