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Do state officials know best?

Word From The Top
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 7, 2009

Like when the country goes to war, most news reports of how state government is handling the H1N1 “swine flu” crisis have just repeated what officials have said. The unspoken premise is that state leaders know what they’re doing. Maybe they do, but in the spirit of fairness and balance, here are a couple of questions.

SHOULDN’T OFFICIALS TELL THE PUBLIC which Maine towns have people infected by H1N1, so that we have as much information as possible to determine our response to the threat? So far, the state has identified only the counties where infections have been found, except in the case of the Kennebunk school closing, where the town couldn’t be hidden.

Commissioner Brenda Harvey of the Department of Health and Human Services says federal law prohibits officials from linking information about health care to an individual. In a small town citizens might be able to figure out who the infected individual is if the town is identified, she says. (To get this justification, the Phoenix had to track her down at a gubernatorial press conference. Her department’s PR person would only say towns weren’t identified because of “longstanding practice.”)

Harvey said that by Monday, May 4, after further consultation with lawyers, she’d be able to say if there was any possibility towns could be identified: “We want to tell citizens what they need to know.” But on May 4 she didn’t provide further information.

On that day, however, Dr. Dora Ann Mills, the state’s chief health officer, justified the secrecy by saying citizens might mistakenly think that because the flu was in a named town it might not exist in a nearby one. She suggested Maine people need only enough information “to make good decisions.”

Not all state officials, though, want to keep the public in the dark. David Farmer, Governor John Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff and a former reporter, said he is arguing within government circles to reveal the names of towns where infections exist.

by the state’s long delay in purchasing an antiviral medication stockpile? The Bangor Daily News reported last summer that Maine was one of “just two states that have not participated in a federal program which helps states purchase and store doses of the potent antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.”
Dr. Mills told the News then that money had been requested several times, but requests hadn't been funded. Farmer explained recently that Baldacci had left it out of his budget because of “competing priorities.”

Very recently, after the crisis began, the drugs were ordered, paid for with $2.2 million in federal stimulus funds. Farmer said they should arrive soon. Also, some antivirals began arriving May 2 from a federal stockpile, he said.

Although Maine didn’t have a stockpile when the first flu cases appeared, the state and Baldacci might have dodged the bullet because H1N1 appears to be not as big a threat as feared. But if the virus had been more virulent and fast-spreading, some citizens might have been upset with Baldacci, to put it mildly, for not funding the antivirals.

The question of responsibility for the effects of budget cuts may reappear on other issues. For years, Democrat Baldacci and both parties in the Legislature have slashed services that benefit large numbers of citizens while they supported big tax breaks and low tax rates that benefit corporations and the wealthy. At a May 1 press conference, Baldacci proposed additional large budget cuts, including in aid to education, as well as days off without pay for state workers. Under questioning, he struggled to find an instance where his proposals would spread the sacrifice to the well-off.

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  Topics: This Just In , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Health and Fitness,  More more >
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