A small but significant fact went all but unnoticed on
September 11, 2001. As emergency fire and medical crews in
New York City struggled to help anyone they could find alive
amid the cinders and rubble of the collapsed World Trade
Center towers, some 68 survivors of the single worst terrorist
attack against Americans walked in and registered for
attention at the Manhattan VA Medical Center. An additional
30 or so also came in, though they didn't register amid the
VA doctors and nurses had to deal with about 98 unanticipated
cases. The result? "They were overwhelmed," said a
congressional expert on veterans affairs. Everyone was
eventually treated, but only because more patients did not
implications of what at first glance might seem merely a
detail - a VA hospital emergency room suffered temporary
overload - grew ominous as reports of more terrorist attacks
later surfaced. Deadly anthrax spores were turning up in the
U.S. mail, and while only a minimal number of people died,
concern mushroomed about possible biological warfare, or
bioterror, attacks aimed at the United States.
state, and local authorities had conducted a joint exercise
involving a bioterrorist incident - with alarming results. A
simulated release of aerosolized pneumonic plague bacteria in
downtown Denver had wreaked havoc on every level of the
emergency response system. Communications broke down as
reports of infections spread at breathtaking speed throughout
the city, across the country, and then to cities as far away
as London and Tokyo because of infected travelers. Stockpiles
of antibiotics and other drugs ran out and couldn't be
replaced rapidly enough. And every area hospital - including
the local VA facility, which participated - was overrun with
government looked closely at the grim lessons learned from the
Denver exercise, conducted in May 2000. Still, the
government tended to rank the likelihood of bioterrorism
fairly low. Because of the intricacies involved, a credible
bioterrorist threat almost would have to involve a state
sponsor, and what state would unleash a horror that would draw
down the world's condemnation?
we've seen a state willing to support that kind of thing,"
said our congressional source, who asked not to be identified.
No agency, public or private, is more painfully aware of this
new, volatile state of affairs than the VA. Federal laws
effectively rely on the VA's extensive medical system to play
the lead role for governmental assistance in responding to a
bioterror disaster anywhere in the United States or its
territories. Yet, while a number of other federal agencies
have received budget increases to combat terrorism, the VA, by
comparison, has gotten almost nothing.
people had walked into the Manhattan VAMC on September 11
instead of 98, what would they have done?," asked the
congressional expert. A bioterrorist attack executed with the
precision of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks could
easily produce upward of 100,000 casualties. And the VA health
care system, like the overall American health care industry in
the U.S., might not even know what was happening until too
of the VA is very important in the event of a biological
attack," says Elin Gursky, a senior fellow at the Center for
Biodefense Strategy at Johns Hopkins University. For the most
part, the VA medical system would be asked to provide "surge
capacity," a term health care officials have coined to refer
to dealing with the results of a sudden influx of patients who
need immediate attention. Most hospitals normally operate at
maximum capacity: the more beds that are filled, the more
income the hospital generates. As a result, the entire
private health care system is vulnerable to a surge in
need additional trained people - physicians, nurses, health
care experts - to be able to respond to a surge," Gursky
says."We'll need the capacity of VA hospital beds to serve as
an overflow for [private and other public] hospitals, and
perhaps even be part of a regional triage system, where the VA
maybe takes over the less sick patients. In terms of its
trained personnel and its facilities, I don't think this
country would attempt to do comprehensive bioterrorism
planning without VA in an integral role."
The VA has
a long history of providing emergency medical assistance
throughout the U.S., and with good reason. With 163 medical
centers across the country and some kind of clinic in
virtually every community, the agency operates the only
national health care system that can respond to a domestic
medical emergency almost anywhere. Hence, the reason why in
1984 the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human
Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency included
the VA when drafting plans for the National Disaster Medical
System (NDMS). The purpose of the NDMS - jointly operated by
DoD, HHS, FEMA and VA - is to provide capability for treating
large numbers of patients injured in a large peacetime
disaster within the continental United States, or to treat
casualties returning from a conventional military conflict
NDMS was first established, DoD had lots of domestic patient
beds available. But as DoD downsized, closing many bases, it
lost those medical facilities, leaving VA as the only
pre-deployed federal health care resource, meaning it is the
only one of the four partner agencies that can provide direct
clinical care in the field. Even prior to establishment of
the NDMS, VA medical facilities routinely engaged in emergency
planning with local private hospitals in their respective
As part of
the NDMS, the VA is responsible for running about 80 percent
of the federal communications centers, which coordinate
response activities with community hospitals in the area of a
medical disaster. The VA is also in charge of providing
patient care during a disaster, but almost never does that
happen within a VAMC. It's usually a matter of working with
community hospitals and partners.
early 1990s President Clinton wanted the government to be able
to protect the country from more than just medical disasters.
He issued two directives that eventually formed the backbone
of the Federal Response Plan (FRP), which established the
architecture for a systematic, coordinated, and effective
federal response to any kind of disaster or emergency
situation. Under the FRP the VA's responsibilities grew and
puts two federal agencies in charge - the FBI for crisis
management and FEMA for consequence management. FEMA's
responsibilities include medical care and public health, both
of which are directly overseen by the Department of Health and
Human Services, HHS mobilizes the National Disaster Medical
System, which then allows the VA to act as an equal partner
with HHS. The FRP requires that HHS ask the VA for help and
services, which the VA then supplies. Thus, the VA is the
main support for mass care.
these plans, the VA has developed a capacity to respond to
just about any disaster - and it has. "VA has responded to
every single domestic disaster of the last 20 years," says the
congressional source. "Hurricane Andrew, Oklahoma City, and
even the catastrophic flooding in Houston last year. In fact,
the VA hospital in Houston was the only one that did not have
a generator in the basement," and was therefore able to keep
functioning while generators at other hospitals disappeared
under water. For Hurricane Andrew, the agency deployed more
than a thousand medical personnel to South Florida.
As a result of the temporary overload
at the Manhattan VAMC, VA Secretary Anthony Principi established the Emergency
Preparedness Working Group (EPWG), a panel of experts charged with determining
what the agency must have in place to prevent another overload if a similar attack should
occur in the future. Moreover, all VA facilities would have to be able to continue
fulfilling their primary mission - caring for veterans - while dealing with a surge in patients.
The EPWG, given short notice and
little time because of fears that other terrorist attacks might be imminent, delivered its
report last November. "It's quite comprehensive, and it looks at everything from personal
protective equipment and decontamination to security and law enforcement," says Dr.
Kristi L. Koenig, head of the VA's Emergency Management Strategic Healthcare
"What the [EPWG] found was that VA
is in some ways more prepared than the medical world in general, because they've
had to be - VA works all the time with DoD as backup for DoD in times of war," said the
congressional source. "Still, things needed to be done."
One thing was an increase in
security, training, and equipment at VA medical facilities. VA medical staff had to be able to
protect themselves and their patients in the event of an attack. Otherwise, the primary
mission of caring for veterans would be jeopardized. "We have
to make sure all our facilities are hardened anf that e have
continuity-of-operations plans in place so that we can
continue providing that care." says Koenig.
What the VA refers to as its fourth
mission is an amalgam of responsibilities, such as preparing for the arrival of
casualties from an overseas war the U.S. may be fighting or preparing to respond to a domestic
disaster. Typically the VA focuses on one of those responsibilities at a time. "But
after September 11 all these missions were coming into place at once," says Koenig. For
example, while preparing to respond to more attacks on American soil, the agency also had
to gear up for the possibility of casualties from the war in Afghanistan. Moreover, the
VA also suddenly had to contend with a slightly reduced workforce. "Some of our
employees were being called up as reservists," Koenig says.
Consequently, the EPWG recommended a
review of virtually all VA emergency and contingency plan the
VA had devised to that point to make sure they
reflected the new reality.
The EPWG also found, as VA already
knew to a large extent, that communication during emergencies
was often poor. In
particular, it's imperative to develop and use a communication system that does not
depend on telephone lines; also, when using radios, a clear plan for everyone to use the
same frequency is vital. Information management systems were also discovered to be
The report concluded with an
estimate of how much it would cost to bring the VA's level of preparedness up to where it
should be - $250 million. "That's actually pretty reasonable," said the congressional
source. "But then the administration said, 'Pare that down to what you absolutely have to
have.' The group said, 'Okay, we can work with $77 million. We won't be able to do
everything, but we can at least get every single VAMC capable of protecting its own
patients.' The administration then said, 'Hmm, okay, here's $2 million.' That's all they got
from the administration's emergency supplemental funds. The VA has a great plan, but no
money. Still, they'll do the job because they have to -
have no choice about protecting veteran patients. But
something will lose out. The money will have to come from
elsewhere in the VA budget.''
The VA already has begun taking
steps to improve preparedness. A statement from the agency's office of public affairs
says that: "We are enhancing our emergency
operations center to keep that system functioning fully in the event of a crisis of any
nature. This center has instituted daily, around-the-clock coverage, with secure data and voice
communications links, to closely monitor VA's operational status, and to track the
location of essential personnel for mobilization in the event of a crisis. Additionally,
VA's information technology capability is being improved system-wide.
"Second, to make sure VA can respond
fully in the event of a crisis, there will be an immediate review of the [EPWG's]
recommendations, identifying those needing immediate action and a fast-track
decision process adopted to implement them.
"Third, VA has expanded its Office
of Policy and Planning to include operations to support [Office of Homeland Security
director Thomas] Ridge in fulfilling the mission of providing for homeland security, and
oversee on a daily basis emergency and operations activities."
Specifically concerning the threat
of bioterrorism, however, VA's state of preparedness is less encouraging. In theory, the VA
would respond on two levels - local and federal. Locally, the VA would provide
humanitarian assistance in the form of treating anyone who walked into a VA medical
facility. "If someone comes to your door, and
he's not a veteran and he's dying on your doorstep, as will happen, you're going to take
care of him if you have the ability to do so,'' says Koenig. "We're not authorized to
take care of non-veterans, but in this kind of scenario, we provide humanitarian assistance,
and we've done it over and over again already.''
This would involve more immediate,
almost isolated forms of assistance, as opposed to VA's role on the national level as
part of the Federal Response Plan. In a typical emergency, local officials would
request help from the state. If the state couldn't provide it, a request would go to the
federal level, which would trigger a White House declaration of a disaster, in turn enacting the FRP. More than likely, though, a large release of smallpox bacilli, for example, would
automatically activate the FRP. There would be no time for the normal process to work
its way up the line: Too many people would die.
The Department of Health and Human
Services' office of emergency preparedness would call Koenig's office and make a
request for assistance in whatever form - medical personnel or supplies, for
instance. "We're not required to provide whatever they ask for,'' Koenig says.
"We only do it
if it doesn't degrade our ability to do our primary mission. However, because we have a
nationally integrated health care system, up until this point we have generally been
able to provide whatever's been requested.''
Nevertheless, bioterrorist threats
have pointed up shortcomings within the VA and in the country's entire emergency
health-care response system. "One of biggest concerns I have is risk communication,'' says
Koenig. "I don't think we did very well with that after the anthrax. We were all still learning,
and I'm not sure we gave really good, quick, and clear messages as [the incident] was
unfolding. You wouldn't have thought you could contract anthrax the way it was contracted''
based on information the government was releasing.
A particularly vexing
problem that came out of the simulated release of plague in Denver
- an that still has not been resolved - is the question of
how to enforce a quarantine. The VA, proactive to a
large degree on the matter, had tried to answer this question prior to the
Denver test, but it was the Denver test that graphically demonstrated the near-impossibility
of restricting the movements of people who may be infected. The only sure means was
to shoot them.
From the standpoint of medical
response, possibly the most insidious aspect of bioterrorism is the delayed
recognition of a bioterrorist attack. It is not easily
determined whether a sudden outbreak of disease
is the result of bioterrorism, which more than likely occurs
unseen. It's also nearly impossible to know exactly where or
when the release of agents took place - and therefore where to send authorities to combat
or disinfect it. All you know is that suddenly you have
a lot of sick and dying people on your hands.
Currently the VA has no plans to
have experts on bioterrorism posted to any of its medical centers. Instead, according
to Gen. Mick Kicklighter, the VA assistant secretary for policy and planning as well as
the acting director of the agency's Office of Operations Security & Preparedness, existing VA
health care personnel will be trained on recognizing and responding to bioterrorist events.
"Hopefully we'll get some warnings [of a bioterror attack], but if not,
we will have, I believe, a very significant training program connected with this
preparedness," Kicklighter says.
"I don't think we'll be getting any
new people," adds Dr. Robert Claypool, Kicklighter's deputy.
"We'll just be training
the people we have. But we are looking at, if the budget supports it, being able to
[hire] additional individuals who will have expertise in decontamination training."
Ultimately, says Koenig, any decision to bring in resident bioterror experts to any VAMC will
be the decision of the VAMC director. "The responsibility for that has been
delegated to the individual facilities,'' she says.
The VA is also participating with
other federal agencies to develop something called "syndromic surveillance," which
Claypool describes as "a concept where you look at getting an early-warning system or a
tripwire for a bioterror event through the recognition of an
unusual constellation of symptoms and signs."
But even with bioterror experts
located at every VA facility, other preparedness issues remain.
"If we had anthrax released
in aerosolized fashion, affecting lots more people than were affected last year,
causing 500 cases, we could deal with it," says the congressional source.
You just have to look at the number of hospital beds available on any given day to know
that that's going to be a problem. A hundred thousand cases of smallpox is
numerically possible, but we don't have much play in our medical system - and that's a
byproduct of 20 years now of HMO and managed care principles, that we should strip
down to minimal inventory, minimal everything, and go to outpatient services. VA's been doing
that, too. But VA will be better off than other hospitals in that VA is already
putting in place regional pharmaceutical stockpiles just for VA use.''
So far the agency has established
143 such stockpiles or caches. According to Claypool, they would allow VA medical
facilities to treat anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 casualties for a day, possibly two, which could
be crucial since it will likely take at least that long for the Department of Health and
Human Services to release and deliver its supply of pharmaceuticals to an affected area.
"The 143 caches are designed specifically to support our medical centers, for patients
who present to our centers, for our veterans and for our staff," he says.
Though the VA is designated as a
supporting player in a bioterrorist incident, the sheer size and geographic diversity of its
medical facilities all but guarantee it will be a lead player on the actual scene.
thing you can say is that if a bioterrorist attack hit today, VA would end up being
involved,'' the congressional source said. "Because when people get sick, they don't pick up
a phone book and say, Which of the hospitals is best likely to deal with infectious
diseases of unknown etiology?' They go to the nearest hospital or where they've always
gone. So veterans would go to VAMCs.''
But whether the VAMCs will be able
to care for them and provide assistance to the communities affected by the attack
and continue with the VA's primary mission - caring for veterans - is an open question. A
staffing shortage currently plagues the health care industry at large, and the VA is not
immune. "Whatever we have to face, we will try to make sure we have minimum disruption
in our ability to take care of veterans and their families," says Kicklighter.
we have excess capability, and the country asks us to help, maybe in bringing resources
from other medical centers [not located near the attack], then we'll do everything we
can to help save American lives and reduce pain and suffering. Whatever we face, the VA
will continue to function as a VA. We won't close down."
Would a VA medical center be
authorized, then, to turn away non-veterans should the facility's ability to care for
veterans be compromised by an attack in the area? "It's hard to answer a question like that
unless you're right on the ground," says Kicklighter. "Our mission is to take care of veterans,
but if we're in a situation where we're overwhelmed, we'd just do everything we can to
make the right choices and do everything we can to take care of veterans and help our
community as much as we could. But in this world, we now have to think of things we never
wanted to think of, and massive numbers of casualties, that's one of them."
A U.S. war against Iraq could
further strain VA capabilities and resources. A U.S. war against Iraq and a bioterrorist
attack on U.S. soil could do far worse. Says Kicklighter,
"I think we're moving in the direction
to help support our nation in whatever situation there is, whether it's taking battlefield
casualties or from the home battlefield, or from both battlefields. But that's a scenario
we hope and pray doesn't happen.''
The White House has increased the HHS budget anywhere from $3 billion to $6 billion, depending on how you view it,
specifically to combat the threat of bioterror. HHS could transfer funds to the VA to pay for
any VA services or personnel needed in a national disaster, but HHS is not required to
pay for everything it asks from VA. HHS and VA have also had their disputes in the
past over allocation of resources. And disputes eat up precious time.
That the VA is supposed to provide
only assistance - and not assume the lead role - is no comfort to VA doctors, nurses, and
clinicians who know that the rest of the country's emergency health care system is less
prepared to deal with mass casualties from bioterror. In practice, the main responsibility
will devolve almost instantly to the VA. How long it can hold on until it, too, is
overwhelmed is the ultimate question.
"Since probably the 1918 flu
pandemic, we've never truly overwhelmed our health care capacity in this country," says
Koenig. "We've had major disasters in terms of property damage and death, but live patients
with potentially treatable illnesses and symptoms - that's just a lot of theory now. Other countries have had the experience, but not here. It's hard to get people to conceptualize
what that would be like."
It may not be so hard one day.