WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- House democrats Thursday called for almost $7 billion to improve public health infrastructure and take other steps to expand the nation's ability to prevent and respond to bioterrorism.
Members of the House Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security gathered in front of the House chambers to unveil the Bioterrorism Protection Act (BioPAct) of 2001. Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the task force chairman, said the $6.9 billion bill is the first of several homeland security proposals.
"(The bill) will eliminate biological threats at the source, by helping countries like Russia and the other former Soviet states prevent their biological agents from getting into our enemies' hands," Menendez said in a prepared statement. "BioPAct will keep our food and water supply safe and secure by putting a comprehensive new inspection protocol in place."
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., called the proposal a very positive step, and said the severity of the current situation shouldn't be overestimated. "We've got to find out the facts as best we can and deliver them to the people," Gephardt said. "We can deal with anthrax, we can deal with these threats, that's what this is about. We should move forward with confidence and unity that we can deal with these problems."
About half the funds called for in the bill are earmarked for the public health infrastructure. Specifically, hospitals would get $1 billion to increase capacity and staffing, along with expanding training for both first responders and medical personnel. Response planning and medical surveillance efforts would receive a combined $1.1 billion.
Another $1.4 billion would go toward antibiotics and new vaccines, as well as providing the equipment and training for public health workers to administer the medications. Almost half of this money would give the Food and Drug Administration the resources to fast-track bioterror-related vaccines and medicines.
The bill would give the U.S. Postal Service $250 million to better address threats to mail security. The funds would go towards better scanning technologies, tracking methods for pinpointing the source of suspicious mail, and research into ways of decontaminating mail before it's handled or delivered.
Other law enforcement and border control efforts would receive $620 million, funding that pleased task force member Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. "With cutting-edge biometrics and other new technologies, we can create a safer, more efficient and less subjective law-enforcement system," Reyes said in a prepared statement. "That will ease current burdens on commerce along the border and throughout the nation."
Food-safety programs would get $725 million under the bill, aimed primarily at increasing inspections of both imported and domestic food sources. Water-safety efforts, including improved monitoring systems and better security at bottling plants, would receive $75 million.
The bill would devote $720 million to military-related programs, including $100 million to better support existing programs for securing and eliminating biological, chemical and nuclear materials within the former Soviet Union. Military domestic crisis response teams and civil support teams would get $420 million of these funds to improve training, equipment and personnel levels.
Intelligence-gathering and analysis efforts would get the bill's remaining $1.1 billion.