Saturday, November 05, 2005

Control the Bird Flu Bureaucrats

President Bush last week asked congress for $7.1 billion to start the war against bird flu. It's clear that we need to combat this new flu before it spreads to humans and becomes transmissible. Already the major battle plans are being drawn up, and they are discussed below as jobs 1-3. But job 4, which concerns controlling the special interest bureaucrats who are now circling this topic like vultures, is equally important if our country is going to win the bird flu war at a reasonable cost.

Everyone agrees that job #1 is the vaccine. We need faster, more efficient means to manufacture flu vaccine - no more egg-based production. But it will take time to learn how to genetically engineer the vaccine and then manufacture it in huge quantities. Hopefully the $7.1B will go a long way toward producing large quantities of vaccine in the next year or two.

Job #2 is to determine how to allocate and administer the vaccine. This is not a simple task. The decisions could be left to the states and the free market, which would result in competition for the vaccine and many differing decisions about who gets it. Or, the federal government could centralize the vaccine purchasing and the allocation decisions. The free market option may be tempting to the Bush administration because it would, at least until the flu arrives, focus the arguments and criticisms toward non-federal entities. However, the inequities perceived in widely varying state-by-state approaches could come back to haunt the central government. This debate will be interesting to follow.

Job #3 involves strategies for slowing the spread of a bird flu pandemic into the United States. The federal government will have to make decisions about travel restrictions, quarantines, and other pandemic management issues.

Job #4 may be the most difficult of all - controlling the bureaucrats. These are the governmental and health care professionals who see the potential pandemic as a perfect opportunity to enhance their funding and power. Already we are hearing voices crying out for "planning", "training", "equipment", and "facilities" - each of which is shorthand for "money for me". Watch out!

Recently I heard a so-called expert call for the purchase of thousands and thousands of respirators to keep flu victims alive. He didn't even mention paying all the people who would operate the respirators or the facilities that would have to be built to house them. We are only beginning to hear the many half-cooked schemes that will soon be competing for bird flu funds from our federal and state governments.

Our elected officials need to put the bird flu bureacrats on hold until the strategy for dealing with bird flu is completed. There will be trade-offs in the strategy, since protection can never be perfect. Each trade-off will provoke serious opposition from the bureaucrats who expected funding for their traded-off projects. But if we don't do the overall war plan first, waste of scandalous proportions will occur. We can't afford for the country to get sick, but we can't afford for it to be broke, either.

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