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. Mark

    It sick to know the party of "tax and spend" doesnt even pay their own taxes.

    April 27, 2009 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  2. Lawyermommy

    Always criticizing the Presidents every move. The country is in trouble, we have an effective hard working President. I know the press has a living to earn my sensationalizing even the dog of the first family, however in the midst of a recession and great turmoil, how beneficial is it to outline the dearth of officers in this case?

    What does the author expect from thinking readers? Applause???

    No! Please try ethical reporting and save the sensation for Hollywood types.

    April 27, 2009 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  3. Edwin

    Thank you Sanjay Gupta for running away when presented the honor to keep your country healthy.

    April 27, 2009 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  4. Sharon

    Who else is to blame but the party of No, which is holding up most of the nominations??? Business as usual for the Republican party.

    April 27, 2009 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  5. Sylvia

    CNN, would you please give the President a break? Why don't you mention that your GOP friends are holding up the nomination of Kathleen Sebelieus as the Healthy secretary?

    April 27, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  6. Mississippi Mike

    He's been in office for what, 100 days and he still doesn't have the HHS staffed up? Remember how he started a new quasi-official office (complete with insignia) called the office of the president-elect? He's never accomplished anything other than getting elected. He can't even fill his cabinet and the people he does find that will take the job don't seem able to pay their taxes.

    After 100 days, it looks like we may have our worst president ever.

    April 27, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  7. alvino

    Time for the party of "NO!" to allow Sebelius to be confirmed.

    April 27, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  8. Scott

    It's all about HOPE AND CHANGE people.

    Instead of having "bad folks" running the government, let's have NO ONE!

    Obama should have spent less time campaigning for President in 1012 and more time actually BEING President.

    April 27, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  9. Bob in Pa

    A public health emergency is issued and we have not yet had one case where the patient needed hospitalization ? Are we overreacting ? Or, abbra cadabra, just a little misdirection ?

    April 27, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  10. Sam Ellison

    You know, if Republicans weren’t busy blocking Obama’s HHS nomination pretending they care about the abortion issue as anything other than a political tool, Sebelius would be in place and we could be taking advanced steps to preventing this outbreak. But again, it’s “Politics First”, and Americans are suffering so they can secure a few votes next year.

    April 27, 2009 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  11. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia in CA

    I guess Congress can get off its lazy bottom and confirm Sebelis. Did they not just come back for ANOTHER two weeks off?

    April 27, 2009 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  12. LA

    Yes, it doesn't help that the party of "NO" is holding up HHS nominee's confirmation. Maybe now that we have a health concern, they'll put the country first.

    April 27, 2009 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  13. GOP = 21st century dodo

    Thanks, GOP.

    April 27, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  14. Jennie

    Thank you republicans for stonewalling the confirmation of Sebellius. Idiots.

    Oh, and thanks to susan collins and the conservatives that also didn't think it was necessary to include the money for pandemics. Real smart.

    April 27, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  15. Lee-- Dallas, TX

    I happen to work for HHS and it would beneficial to have our Sec. in place.

    April 27, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  16. Lee-- Dallas, TX

    I happen to work for HHS and it would be beneficial to have our Sec. in place.

    April 27, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  17. Citizen from NY

    Last week it was reported our Army was missing a vial that contained various viruses....has it been recovered? Now we got swine/avian/human flu running rampant....I love a good conspiracy...

    April 27, 2009 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  18. Cleaning up after W

    The republicans are putting our nation's health at risk by selfishly holding up the HHS secretary's nomination. When will they stop playing politics and put country first, for once? If there are any deaths related to this outbreak on U.S. soil, the blood will be on their hands.

    April 27, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  19. I Am The Not-So-Powerful Wizard of Rush

    Fetus rights over victims of swine flu !!!!

    April 27, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  20. C W

    I trust that the Obama Administration is moving as quickly as possible to appoint qualified people to these positions. I also trust that the obstructionist Republicans will do everything in their power to slow the process down because if there's one truism these days, it's that the Republican Party will do anything and everything to try to make the Obama Administration fail.

    Why? Because all they care about is regaining political power. God help us if they do – we have far to much evidence to believe their policies would do nothing more than further harm our nation and citizens.

    April 27, 2009 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  21. The Broker.

    It is a very "Unhealthy Government". Been looking sick since Obama took over.

    April 27, 2009 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  22. gina

    That is because the RETHUGS are playing politics. They all need to be voted out of office!

    April 27, 2009 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  23. ELI

    "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." ... because the GOP is blocking her confirmation because they do not agree on her stand on abortion.

    CNN please update this story and give the public full disclosure.

    April 27, 2009 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  24. Citizen from NY

    P.S. Oh...those missing Army vials, which it us reported MAY NEVER be found, contained equine encephalitis and not the swine/avian/human flu virus...so there goes that conspiracy theory...

    April 27, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  25. awaitingliberalizationbyCNN

    Wasn't Hillary just in Mexico kissing up to them? Could that be the source of the swine flu.

    April 27, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
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