HHS’s failures extend beyond the obamacare website

Derek Hunter Contributor
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A caller into my radio show the other day asked, “If the government can’t even build a website that works, how can it be expected to run our health care system?” Considering the news we’ve seen since the launch of Obamacare, it’s a valid question.

To be fair, the fact that the Department of Health and Human Services can’t build a functioning website isn’t much of a surprise – they aren’t tech specialists. And watching them pour close to a billion dollars down the drain isn’t going to shock anyone who remembers what the government has paid for hammers and toilet seats in the past.

So, it is far more chilling to see HHS stumble in an area that should be its core competence: ensuring there are adequate quantities of vaccine to protect citizens, the military, and others against deadly disease.

By way of background, you probably remember the H1N1 virus stories from a few years ago, also known as the “Swine Flu.” The potential disaster of a worldwide pandemic was averted, thankfully, by health officials taking action to develop a vaccine and monitor the outbreak.

It may seem strange to hear the word “disaster” associated with the flu, but influenza has killed tens of millions people in the last century alone.

There is no one “flu bug” that returns every year, there are numerous strains of influenza. The flu shot people get each fall is a weakened version of the strain researchers suspect of being the one most likely to be the dominant one that year.

Most cases of flu can land otherwise healthy adults in bed for a few days, but the illness can be deadly to children and the elderly. However, the threat of a more virulent strain, like the threat the H1N1 virus posed, is always bubbling under the surface.

As such, the Centers for Disease Control rightly monitors flu outbreaks around the world, and when a particularly virulent strain surfaces, they make recommendations to HHS about developing a vaccine to have ready to go should the worse-case scenario develop. That’s smart (which is not a word often associated with government).

But as urgent as what the CDC does is, it still has to navigate the bureaucracy of HHS to act. That HHS bureaucracy, the same one set to control health care access for all Americans, is exactly what you’d expect from Big Government.

Earlier this year in China, the H7N9 virus emerged as a new strain of “bird flu” that made the jump to infecting humans. It is a strong strain that has killed twenty percent of those who get it. In fact, CDC itself warned that H7N9 has “pandemic potential” and suggested that the virus may reemerge in the fall, when the weather in China becomes cooler. Accordingly, recommendations were made within HHS to develop and manufacture a vaccine in preparation for a potentially devastating pandemic.

Vaccine manufacturers were pressed into action. Contracts were signed directing these companies to produce what was scientifically and materially necessary to make large quantities of H7N9 vaccine. In turn, the manufacturers began work with the expectation that orders for mass production were not only medically prudent, but that they were forthcoming.

Indeed, funds for vaccine production are guaranteed through the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act that extends HHS’s mandate to support medical countermeasures for pandemic threats for possible inclusion in the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile.

Then bureaucracy happened. Formal orders from HHS to the vaccine companies, green-lighting further production of the vaccine, have stalled. My sources tell me these orders were supposed to have been received weeks ago.

So, to be clear, Congress has allocated the money, HHS’s own public health experts say it’s warranted, production is ready — but still there has been no official order to proceed. Equally concerning, it takes at minimum 60 days to produce quantities that would only begin to satisfy national demand should there an outbreak.

Sure, there’s a chance the H7N9 virus simply fades away, but there’s also a chance it won’t. You don’t gamble with the health of a nation.  Preparedness is what the CDC is for.

If HHS continues to inexplicably hold up payment, the vaccines meant for us may be sold elsewhere. We will be left vulnerable to something the CDC considers a serious threat.

What’s disturbing about all of this is if the bureaucracy in HHS can’t even get its act together to pay for one type of vaccine it ordered to protect our health, how well do you think it will do with administering countless decisions daily pertaining to the health care of 330 million Americans.

Remember Sarah Murnaghan? She is the 11 year old girl with severe cystic fibrosis who needed a lung transplant to survive. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of HHS, refused to sign a waiver allowing Sarah to bypass age restrictions for children to receive adult transplant organs, which essentially was a death sentence. Her family, her doctor and the public sided with Sarah, the bureaucracy did not, and that was that. Thankfully for the Murnaghan family, a federal judge ordered the arbitrary federal age restrictions on adult to children transplants be waived. Sarah got her lungs and is doing well.

Is HHS so overwhelmed by the failure of the healthcare.gov website that they cannot fulfill a relatively straightforward vaccine order? It makes you wonder how well they will do administering health care decisions impacting all of us. Will we be stuck in the bureaucratic web of HHS? Let’s pray not.