April 27th, 2009
01:20 PM ET
13 years ago

White House health team not at 100 percent

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/27/art.getty.obama.3.3.jpg caption="The White House declared a public health emergency Sunday, and briefed reporters on efforts the federal government's taking to confront the swine flu."]WASHINGTON (CNN) - A firm declaration from the White House: "I want to be very clear here. There is a team in place."

But while those comments Sunday from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs are accurate, it's also true that the Obama administration is dealing with its first medical outbreak with some key players missing from its health team.

The White House declared a public health emergency Sunday, and briefed reporters on efforts the federal government's taking to confront the swine flu. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano led the news conference.

Missing from the Sunday news conference: the adminstration's Health and Human Services Secretary. That's because Obama's nominee for HHS secretary, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Her confirmation could come as early as Tuesday. The President's first choice for the position, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, withdrew his nomination because of tax problems. Tax issues have slowed Sebelius's Senate confirmation.

But it's not just the top spot: There are no apointees in place in any of the department's 18 key positions.

Those positions are Deputy Secretary, Assistant Secretary for Resources and Technology, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, General Counsel, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary for Public Health and Science, Surgeon General, Assistant Secretary for Legislation, Assistant Secretary for Aging, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, Commissioner of the Adminstration for Children, Youth and Families, Commissioner of the Adminstration for Native Americans, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Director of the National Institutes of Health, and Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Director of the Indian Health Service.

In most cases where a position is awaiting Senate confirmation, that job is currently filled by a career civil servant in an "acting" or interim capacity.

The Obama administration has named five nominees for the open positions.

"Obviously we would love to have all of our nominees confirmed but we are lucky to have a terrific team of career and political staff who have been working around the clock to respond to this swine flu outbreak and on all the critical work that the Department has done over the past 100 days," says HHS Spokesperson Jenny Backus.

"During this swine flu outbreak, HHS has worked to get out in front of the challenge, building on planning and preparation that HHS has been doing for years on flu issues, and taking steps that will allow us to respond quickly if the outbreak grows here in the United States."

Also not in place: a new head for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not need Senate confirmation. Like the postions at HHS, the CDC also has a acting director running the show until the Obama administration installs its own person in place.

At Sunday's news conference, Gibbs made a point of saying that the Obama administration is more than equipped to handle the current crisis.

"The team is - part of it is standing behind me, and part of it is working as we speak to identify exactly what the doctor and others have talked about," said Gibbs. "I think this notion somehow that if there's not currently a secretary, that there's not the function that needs to take place in order to prepare for this either this or any other situation is just simply not the case."

The current situation is reminiscent of the early days of the adminstration, when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was dealing with the ever worsening global recession and implementing portions of the federal bailout of financial instutions and of the stimulus package, without most of his top deputies in place at the Treasury Department.

"Can the Obama administration deal with a public health emergency? Yes, but it will be more of a makeshift effort. And therefore a test of management skills in the new White House," says CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.

Filed under: Swine Flu
soundoff (88 Responses)
  1. Sammy

    This is a lot like the story of "cry wolf" - except that in this case, the Democrats see REAL wolves. The Republicans are conveniently ignoring the problem.

    Meanwhile, the wolves are getting closer.

    April 27, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  2. Oskar in SD

    The GOP would veto and or obstruct "Kiss you Mother Day " to show what they think as still having "influence and control".

    April 27, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  3. Don G

    The situation will probably be handled better by the "civil servants" without interference from politically appointed "newbies".

    April 27, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  4. Obama victim

    "Never let a good crisis go to waste"

    How long before we hear the screams and howls from Obama's cult-followers about the conservative opposition to Seblius?

    April 27, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  5. Southern Republican-Montrose, Al

    Why don't you all just change your name or call letters to: LFN (LITTLE FOX NEWS) and get it over with! So, I'll NEVER have to come here again!

    April 27, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  6. J.P.

    Don't worry, Barry can solve all of our problems using some verbal "magic dust" from his teleprompter.

    Apply pretty words... there... all better now.

    April 27, 2009 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  7. Cowboy in West Texas

    Well – when his appointees don't pay their taxes – why should it surprise him that he runs short handed.

    April 27, 2009 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  8. Ajay Jain, Garland, TX, USA

    Tell your SENATORs to confirm HHS Secy that Obama has appointed:


    Thanks for your input.

    April 27, 2009 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  9. ron

    president obama's problem with appointing key personnel is that he somehow is drawn to people who leave a lot to be desired as we have seen. most of his appointees have been turned down or have had to step down because of things in their background, like unpaid taxes ect, but that seems to be insignificant to him.

    April 27, 2009 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  10. Ernie in LA

    He does not care. He is playing Basketball and playing with the dog.

    April 27, 2009 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  11. Dennis

    "Tax issues have slowed Sebelius's Senate confirmation."....

    Can't you just come out and say the truth – that Republicans are blocking her nomination instead of fudging it like that.......

    April 27, 2009 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  12. Chi Town

    The guy can't get through a speech without a teleprompter... and you expect him to step up for a crisis...

    If he can't through money at it... he's got no other plan...

    April 27, 2009 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  13. Rick

    I'd like to hear the excuse for not having a new head of the CDC in place.
    As the story notes, this post does not require any confirmation from the Senate, so why the delay?

    April 27, 2009 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
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