On Jan. 1, the Department of Health and Human Services will once again be responsible for the National Disaster Medical System, of which the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams are a part.
Before Sept. 11, the NDMS, which coordinates and manages the government's medical response to federally declared disasters, was under the DHHS. The system is responsible for deploying VMATs as well as teams of physicians, nurses, and morticians when disaster strikes. After the terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was given oversight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administered the NDMS. The agency will remain with the DHS, however.
But when Hurricane Katrina struck, the federal government was sharply criticized as being slow and inefficient in its aid to effected Gulf Coast residents.
In the assessments that followed, putting the Health and Human Services Department back in charge of the National Disaster Medical System was one of many improvements recommended for the government's emergency response. Such a provision making the department's management permanent was included in a multi-billion dollar homeland security package signed by President Bush Oct. 4.
Veterinary-specific disaster relief operations started in 1993 with the AVMA's creation of the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team program. Today, four teams of veterinarians and veterinary technicians are stationed across the country and can be deployed during federally declared disasters and emergencies. Teams assist veterinary communities and help manage animal- and public health-related issues. VMATs were deployed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and hurricanes Charlie and Katrina, in addition to more than 35 other deployments since 1995.
The AVMA welcomes the move back to the DHHS. On Oct. 25, AVMA officials met with Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, MD, who, as the department's Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness, will be in charge of the NDMS.
According to Dr. Cindy Lovern, an assistant director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division, the meeting was very positive. The AVMA believes the DHHS is supportive of the VMATs and interested in an expanded role for the veterinary teams, Dr. Lovern added.
"We understand that the DHHS wants to continue the valuable public-private partnership with the AVMA, and they are not looking for total control of the VMAT program," she said. "They stated that they also have a real desire to ramp up local and state deployment capabilities, so it doesn't always have to be a federal VMAT response to disasters."
A draft memorandum of understanding detailing the specifics of the AVMA-DHHS partnership, including VMAT responsibilities while deployed, is under review by the DHHS staff in anticipation of the move back in January.