Slow-going for anti-bioterrorism projects

GAO report on public health infrastructure

Federal agencies have made progress in deploying information technology as part of the nation’s bioterrorism defenses, but there is still work to do, the Government Accountability Office said this week in a report.

It cited duplication and lack of coordination in some public health IT programs for detecting and responding to a bioterrorism attack or other public health emergency. But the report does not single out any agency or program as being at fault.

Although the report does not point fingers, it states that none of the major anti-bioterrorism projects undertaken in recent years by the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security have resulted in a system that is yet fully operational.

GAO identified the incomplete state of the national health IT infrastructure and interoperability standards as a major obstacle to a comprehensive set of IT tools.

“CDC and DHS will face challenges in integrating their public health IT initiatives into these ongoing efforts” to develop a health architecture, the report states.

In comments provided to GAO, HHS officials generally agreed with the auditors’ findings, while DHS took issue with some GAO’s characterizations of project status.

Asked for further comment, a spokeswoman for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT said she had nothing to add. However, that office included public health applications such as biosurveillance for detecting disease outbreaks and communication among state, federal and local public health officials in the request for proposals for standards harmonization it issued last month.

An example of overlap between programs cited by GAO is syndromic surveillance systems for early detection of a disease outbreak. “Some of the surveillance initiatives in our review address similar functionality and may duplicate ongoing efforts at other federal, stage and local agencies,” according to the report.

The report recommends more coordination among federal agencies and with state and local public health authorities, as well as continued HHS emphasis on public health IT standards.

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