A congressional committee is investigating whether morale problems at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — including the loss of key staff members — are harming the agency's scientific mission and its ability to respond to public health emergencies.
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee is investigating whether turmoil within the Atlanta-based CDC caused by a massive reorganization is "resulting in the loss of distinguished medical experts whose participation will be greatly needed in the event of future catastrophic health emergencies," committee spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said Tuesday night.
The investigation is separate from another inquiry being conducted by the same committee over whether the agency has adequately supervised a $3.8 billion bioterrorism grant program for state preparedness, Kozeny said.
CDC Director Julie Gerberding was unavailable for comment Tuesday night. Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman, said morale is not affecting the agency's ability to protect the American public.
"The CDC has never been in a better position than it has been under Dr. Gerberding's leadership to respond to emergencies," said Skinner. The CDC's responses to the threats of SARS, monkeypox, the 2004 Asian tsunami and last year's Hurricane Katrina all attest to that, he said.
Under Gerberding, the 60-year-old CDC has been undergoing major restructuring as part of what was initially called the agency's Futures Initiative, which began in 2003. Changes have included creation of a new management structure with new divisions meant to break down bureaucracy and encourage greater collaboration among the different fields of expertise at the agency.
"This is the largest reorganization the CDC has ever gone through,'' Skinner said.
The reorganization of CDC departments has been the source of widespread discontent and complaints within the agency for many months, even prompting the creation of an outside Web site, www.cdcchatter.net, in which employees anonymously air grievances.
Some of the complainants are career CDC employees, many with distinguished scientific records, but they have unanimously refused to be identified, saying they fear reprisals on the job. The employees contend the reorganization has created new bureaucracies that hamper their work and that key scientists have been marginalized.
Gerberding recently met in Washington with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the Finance Committee's chairman, to discuss the concerns being investigated by his staff.
Kozeny, the committee spokeswoman, said that while Gerberding gave Grassley assurances that it was normal for employees to be anxious about change, the staff's investigation continues.
"Current and former employees are reporting that morale problems caused by failure of current agency management to adequately involve employees in the ongoing reorganization are resulting in the loss of distinguished medical experts whose participation will be greatly needed in the event of future catastrophic health emergencies," Kozeny said in a written statement.
Skinner disputed that morale concerns are causing the CDC to lose key employees. He said the number of resignations by CDC staff is at their lowest levels in six years.
While he acknowledged that some senior scientists have retired, he said they were eligible for retirement and had attractive outside opportunities.
Skinner said the reorganization within the CDC is being done with input by hundreds of CDC employees, as well as numerous outsiders ranging from state and local public health officials, the medical community and other government agencies.
"This process has been very inclusive," he said, noting numerous forums and working groups.
The wide-ranging probe by Grassley's investigators comes as they are also looking into the CDC's oversight of bioterrorism preparedness funds. That inquiry was first reported Saturday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Commenting Tuesday for the first time about the bioterrorism probe, Kozeny said the committee is investigating a CDC whistleblower's allegations that despite sending billions of dollars in grant money to states, the CDC has no data "of acceptable quality" to verify the preparedness level of local agencies and whether taxpayers have gotten their money's worth.
An employee of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response is working with Grassley's investigators and has been granted official whistleblower status and protection against retribution by her employers.
Dr. Richard Besser, director of the CDC's terrorism office, said Friday that the employee, who has not been publicly identified, felt strongly that measurements being developed by the agency were not as good as they should be. Besser and other CDC officials said they are working to foster healthy debate within the agency. In addition, the agency is working on a revised set of measurements that should be released in the next few weeks.
Grassley's committee is investigating whether efforts to create meaningful performance standards have been thrwarted by CDC management. Employees have told the committee that measurement tools written by scientific experts are "consistently rejected or rewritten" by managers lacking scientific or technical expertise, according to a letter sent on March 2 by Grassley to Michael Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC.
Besser has said the CDC believes it is essential to have good measurements for preparedness. He said his office continues to seek wide-ranging collaboration and input from within his staff and from state health officials.