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. FreeNLovIt

    That must be the reason why we have no plan at the current moment. Please just make sure there's free flu drugs or little cost flu drug for the unemployed and the ones that cant afford it. This should help stop the flu. Like I said, last year, I DRANK the last drop of flu medicine, belonging to my brother. I couldnt afford $1000.00 office visit plus drugs.

    April 27, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  2. Candy West Virginia

    Thanks again republicans for obstructing progress yet again for your own petty reasons. Guess you guys don't care that this country NEEDS A HHS do you?

    April 27, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  3. Jan Franklin

    The Oval Office is pitifully below 100% staffed, too.

    April 27, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  4. Julie

    This is change we can believe in? I think not.

    April 27, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  5. Mike, Syaracuse, NY

    What happened to 'ready on day one'?

    April 27, 2009 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  6. Lynda/Minnesota

    What? No HHS? Oh, that's right, the GOP have been fighting against her confirmation for how long has it been now?

    April 27, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  7. steve

    Ready to lead on day one, eh?

    April 27, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  8. David

    obama and his tax cheats...what a group.

    April 27, 2009 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  9. Lisa B

    I am beginning to see a pattern here with the dirty GOPer's. Cheney spews of a new attack because he thinks Obama reversing his torture policies will weaken the U.S. so if a terroist attack occurs anytime in Obama's presidency he can say, "See, I told you Obama is weak and weakend the U.S." Then by taking their sweet time confirming Sebelius for HHS Secretary, now a possible flu outbreak, they can say, "See, he is not prepared"

    April 27, 2009 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  10. Fitz in Texas

    Even if were up and running at 100% I still wouldn't sleep at night. Look at some of the people Obama has appointed to many of these very important positions. Not the right people, no doubt about it.

    Well, at least Obama can blame Bush as usual.

    April 27, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  11. Tim

    Yep, change I knew was coming.

    April 27, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  12. Tim

    By the way, does CNN often describe 0 for 19 as "not at 100%"?

    Silly me, but I pretty much call it zero.

    April 27, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  13. Texas Teacher

    Come on.... give the man a break! He has only been in office for 100 days... remember? He's good... he's smart... and he sings well, too... but the man is not magic! 🙂

    April 27, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  14. Bob Foster

    Sebilius would be confirmed by now if Republicans hadn't tried to obstruct her confirmation. She was supposed to be confirmed last week. One thing they do not understand is that their grandstanding for political gain has real life consequences, and makes our country vulnerable. When will the Republicans stop playing politics and start helping our country?

    April 27, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  15. Sharon Kitchen

    The Obama admin. and staff can handle this along with all other gov.sections .

    The time to confirm the DHS would be now, unless the party of "no" would like to keep holding this up.
    But then........do they wish people pointing their fingers at them?????
    Time will tell.

    April 27, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  16. Qui-Tam Relator

    Stephen King wrote a book and made a movie "The Stand". It's a movie where our government has a breach at a Military Weapons Biological Center in Baja California where a Super Flu escapes into the air and infects the planet through Air Travel and our government lies to the American People and the World right up to the end and only a few thousand people survive and it becomes a story of Good vs Evil. Would our governmet lie to us as well ? ****************************************************************

    April 27, 2009 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  17. Dan, TX

    Why isn't Sebelius confirmed yet? People's lives are at stake.

    April 27, 2009 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  18. ron

    Geithner's a tax cheat, Napolitano is obviously lacking in thought and skill, Holder was specifically chosen because he works for the Guantanamo law firm, and his EPA chief was chosen specifically to lable carbon dioxide as a poison.

    April 27, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  19. ron

    His education chief was in charge of the worst school district in America.

    April 27, 2009 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  20. Deborah

    Fact: When SARS broke out in Canada a few years ago.....

    35 people died because they where in the Emergency Waiting Room of the Hospital that the second person was taken to. His wife was told to drive to the hospital and wait in the waiting room to be called to join her husband. She was in the Waiting room for 15 minuets and 35 people died as a result!

    This Administration is not prepared to save America-save yourself and STAY HOME!

    Don't go to an Emergency room unless you want to die!

    Don't go anywhere unless you want to die!

    April 27, 2009 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  21. arithmetic is liberal

    We could be livingin a country where we had free healthcare, the average single person middle class income was in the low-mid six figure range, and where we had renewable energy.

    What has been the speed bump at every turn along the path to that future?


    April 27, 2009 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  22. S.M

    Watch the GOP try to find a reason not to confirm those five individuals. I bet you if this were the Bush administration and it were their own up for confirmation they would be confirmed without missing a beat.

    April 27, 2009 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  23. Wayne

    You have conveinantly left out the reason why we don't have a Health Secratary: Because Republicans are holding up and fillibustering the confirmation.

    April 27, 2009 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  24. Slider

    As I listen to the leftists of the United Nations spew their hysteria concerning this "epidemic/pandemic", I can only think that this is the same nonsense that our media hyped up with regard to the economic stimulus, the healthcare issue, and the subprime mortgage "crisis".

    I'm laughing at all the sheep being led by nose by these "Chicken Little(s)" who have to turn every challenge into an almost unsolvable situation.

    A bogeyman in every pot.


    April 27, 2009 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  25. Ezra

    Everyone is always worried about tax problems. But, now we have a potential pandemic afflicted the United States and no Secretary of Health and Human Services. Why? Because the confimation committe is fixated on issues other than the her ability to keep America healthy and safe from the threats of the New Millenium. Taxes are important, but they won't stop the Swine Flu is it is destined to become the next pandemic.

    April 27, 2009 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
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