HHS makes strides toward consolidated messaging

WASHINGTON: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is

undertaking an ambitious plan to relieve its numerous public affairs

offices of their sovereignty, making all directly accountable to

secretary Tommy Thompson.



The step comes on the heels of sharp criticism for sending conflicting

messages during the national anthrax crisis.



A dozen agencies operate under the HHS umbrella - including the National

Institutes of Health (NIH), The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and

the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) - almost all of which have their

own, independent communications functions. The plan calls for all to be

streamlined under a single authority, a move intended to enforce

consistency of the department's message.



"This is a 65,000-person department with 12 operating divisions and a

budget of over $400 billion," said Bill Pierce, deputy assistant

secretary for media. "It's the largest federal agency in terms of

overall budget. If you were building this today, you would probably

create a centralized public affairs division."



Critics both in and out of government expressed disappointment late last

year over the way the HHS handled communications during the anthrax

scare.



Specifically, Thompson and the CDC were accused of contradicting one

another on the seriousness of the threat.



Pierce has refuted speculation that the reorganization is in any way

connected. "The secretary has always talked about this place as one

department, one voice, since the day he walked in here," he

explained.



In addition to the more than 200 communications professionals it

employs, the HHS has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts

with private PR agencies. Although there is no current plan to review

those contracts, Pierce would not rule out the possibility of such a

review as an eventual part of the restructuring. "Those kinds of details

we don't know yet," he said.



Ogilvy SVP Yolan Laporte, whose firm reaps approximately $6

million annually from various HHS contracts, expressed little concern

over the restructuring.



"I've been in this business 15 years," he said, "and this has come up

with every administration. This is a bit more intense than before, but

it's not the first time it's happened."



THE DOZEN AGENCIES UNDER HHS

- Administration for Children and Families

- Administration on Aging

- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

- Food and Drug Administration

- Health Resources and Services Administration

- Indian Health Services

- National Institutes of Health

- Program Support Center

- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration



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