Congress halts HHS' $28m public affairs consolidation

WASHINGTON: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been rebuffed by Congress in its attempt to consolidate its various public affairs offices under the control of Secretary Tommy Thompson.

WASHINGTON: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been rebuffed by Congress in its attempt to consolidate its various public affairs offices under the control of Secretary Tommy Thompson.

The ambitious undertaking, unveiled last January, sought to relieve the 12 public affairs offices under the HHS umbrella of their sovereignty, thereby giving Thompson final say over all communications and PR efforts.

The objective was a department that spoke with "one voice."

The proposal came on the heels of widespread public criticism over the HHS' sometimes contrary statements regarding the 2001 anthrax scare. At the time, spokesmen denied that the initiative was a reaction to that criticism, however.

Thompson had requested an additional $28 million in his 2003 budget to facilitate the change. But Congress refused to allocate the funds in an omnibus spending bill approved last month.

The Senate Appropriations Committee even went so far as to rebuke the notion of Thompson having total control of HHS communications - a situation they feared would lead to delays in the release of information and the muffling of dissenting voices.

"The committee does not agree to the proposed consolidation of public affairs and legislative affairs functions in the office of the secretary," read an earlier report. "For this reason, the committee's recommendation does not include the $27,793,000 requested to transfer staff from the operating divisions to the Office of the Secretary. The committee has taken this action because of the concern that information necessary to make timely decisions by the Congress and requests for information by the public may be delayed by this consolidation," the report concluded.

The official HHS reaction was anything but regretful. A spokesman conceded that any drive to structurally alter the HHS' PR function was finished, but insisted that such a change was unnecessary. The HHS will soon speak with "one voice" despite of the setback, he said.

"We're now working closer and with more cooperation with our various colleagues in the vast public affairs departments than we ever have before," spokesman Bill Pierce told The Washington Post. "We talk to those folks on a daily basis, and we know what we're all doing."

Among the dozen agencies under the HHS umbrella are the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Administration on Aging.

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