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Kerry: America still far from safe

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry thinks America has a long way to go before it will be able to call itself safe from biological attacks.

Wednesday, Kerry spoke at USF’s Fine Arts building to outline what he calls a “common-sense plan” for making the country secure and prepared for any possible attack.

“I believe deeply that we can be safer than we are today. I don’t believe we have been made as safe as we should be in the aftermath of Sept. 11,” the Mass. senator said. “I don’t believe that we take all the steps that are available to us.

“These steps do not have a political label; this is not Democrat, Republican; this is not ideological, conservative or liberal. This is common sense. This is about mainstream American values. This is about fundamental decisions about how we make ourselves safer as Americans.”

More than 300 people were on-hand to hear a panel of Kerry and four experts, including two USF experts, discuss the threats America faces and why an improved national healthcare system can go a long way toward changing things.

Kerry talked about the threat of a few deadly chemicals and the wide variety of potential weapons, telling the crowd that shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, five people were killed and 13 injured by anthrax sent in letters.

Kerry also said President George W. Bush’s foreign policy has damaged once-strong relationships with other world leaders, relationships that will have to be restored before some important issues can be addressed.

“We can take steps that strengthen our preparedness to a level that reduces the threat and prevents a national tragedy. It will take focus, resources and decisive leadership, and here is what I will do: First, I will lead a global effort to prevent bioterror. I intend to reach out to our allies in ways that this administration has not — in fact, they have alienated our allies, stiff-armed them, pushed them away from us — and we need to bring them back to the table. I will strengthen the bio-weapons ban that this administration specifically weakened and I will enforce international law that outlaws the development, acquisition, possession and use of biological weapons. I will make it a priority for our relationship with Russia that we safeguard any remaining biological agents and that we will ensure that the scientists who built them will use their knowledge for public good by developing drugs, vaccines and antidotes by making sure they are on our payrolls and not the payrolls of terrorist organizations.

“But these preventative steps are not enough. That’s because of the complexity of the nature of bioterrorists. Today … our hospitals and our emergency rooms are just not as ready as they need to be to be able to either detect an attack or respond to an attack. Instead they are staggering beneath the everyday burdens of a broken healthcare system.”

That broken healthcare system, Kerry said, would be one of the most pressing concerns for him as president. Using money from tax cuts enacted by Bush that Kerry said only benefit the nation’s wealthiest people, Kerry promised to reverse a trend he said is creating decreased medical services throughout the country, despite increasing prices.

“During the Clinton administration, Clinton leadership laid out a pathway to deal with some of the issues with bioterrorism and some of the things we needed to do,” he said. “But frankly, prior to Sept. 11, there wasn’t a strong belief in America about the reality of the threat. So money has increased; there is now some money being thrown in these efforts. But even as money is being thrown into these efforts, the states have been cut. The states have been cut in their ability to deliver normal healthcare. The states have been cut in their ability to be able to organize emergency response. Governors have faced raising taxes while cutting services because of decisions made at the federal level. I will go the other way. When I am president, I intend to make certain we provide the federal assistance necessary to guarantee the security and safety of the American people and the organizational structure we need to make this happen.”

But he also said the country’s hospitals need to be more efficient with the money they do have, suggesting that several medical centers struggle with outdated equipment, creating unnecessary labor and waste.

“We spend about $1.6 trillion on healthcare each year. Out of that, almost $400 billion has nothing to do with direct care,” Kerry said. “It is administrative overhead. It is administrative cost, paperweight cost. No business in America, none, works with that kind of high overhead. No profit-making business could afford to.”

Kerry also described a new post he would create as president, one responsible for overseeing the country’s bioterrorism preparedness.

“Today we have some five government agencies with over 200 different departments with these responsibilities, and nobody is in charge. In my first 100 days, I will bring together the top experts in the field of public health, and we will develop a national strategy for our response to bioterrorism. Our states and our cities and our towns need leadership from Washington, not a policy that says, ‘go figure this out on your own.’

“We need standards, so that if, heaven forbid, there is an attack, a plan is in place, a plan that enables different parts of our country to work together.”

Joining Kerry on the panel was a pair of USF employees. Jacqueline Cattani, head of USF’s Center for Biological Defense, and Thomas Mason, director of the Center for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, shared the message that response to biological attacks begin at the local level, with individuals able to make significant impacts.

“Security is a national issue. Response is a local one,” Cattani said.

Cattani described several new pieces of equipment that should be researched and one day employed, but said right now bioterror defense is not enough of a priority to address the issue. One thing she said should be a goal is the creation of a field tool that would enable officials to tell within minutes of finding a sample of an agent whether or not the chemical is harmful and if a victim has come into contact with it.

Also on the panel was Margaret Hamburg, vice president for biological programs with the group Nuclear Threat Initiatives. Hamburg told the audience that the country desperately needs a strategic plan in place to better prepare a healthcare system she said is “incredibly overwhelmed by even routine services.” With outlined goals and standards, Hamburg said, the country would not only be better protected from biological attack, but healthcare services in general would improve as well.

The final panel member, Michael Eosco of the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics, gave a speech supporting Kerry’s plan for healthcare and giving Kerry the IAEP’s official endorsement in the presidential race.

After the panel was finished speaking, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. One person questioned Kerry’s commitment to helping the nation’s uninsured, to which Kerry responded, “The very first legislation I will introduce to the Congress, within hours of raising my hand (for the oath of office), will be a health care plan for all Americans, one that makes certain every single American is included.”

Kerry added that he would create programs enabling more people to become insured, saying his plan to take many medical patients currently being paid for by state funding and place them on a federal programs instead would lower premiums on insurance policies and make healthcare more affordable. But, Kerry added, to do this would require prioritizing and difficult decision-making, with the money for these patients having to be created by cutting funds elsewhere, such as Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, he said.