Editorial: Procedures be damned

You can debate whether the federal government has had to shoulder too much or not enough blame for the slow response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. You can argue the finer points of governance and the relationships among federal, state and local agencies.

But most people would be hard-pressed to justify how one Federal Emergency Management Agency official responded to questions about the slow delivery of medicine to emergency shelters along the Gulf Coast.

In an interview that aired on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" Sept. 14, H. James Young, the FEMA official who oversaw disaster medical assistance teams at the New Orleans airport in Katrina's aftermath, said many of the doctors who complained about the delays are used to working in hospital emergency rooms. "They can say, 'I want this right now,' and they have it," Young said. "Well, this is the federal government, and it has procedures that we go through."

By emphasizing processes rather than results, Young reinforced the public's worst stereotype about the federal government. People who believe in that stereotype might blame feds for responding too slowly, but they'll add that they didn't expect much.

Procedures serve a purpose, of course. The government is the steward of taxpayers' money and the custodian of large stores of personal data. In many cases, red tape serves as a safeguard, protecting the interests of the public from thoughtless or malicious behavior. As strange as it sounds, bureaucracy can serve the public good.

A national emergency, though, requires a different response. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services realized this early on and began working with pharmacies, insurance providers and medical labs to reconstruct health records that were lost in the floodwaters.

Their plan raises legitimate privacy concerns, but HHS should be commended for recognizing that the immediate need for those records — people's lives are at stake — outweighed such concerns, at least in the short term.

In a crisis, the public good is often best served by giving officials the freedom to cut red tape as dictated by common sense. In such an environment, abuse seems inevitable and must be managed. But what is the point of protecting the public good at the expense of individual lives?

— John Monroe

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