Federal debt solutions could threaten funds for emergency readiness

Columbus Dispatch

A program that prepares medical responders for worst-case scenarios is in jeopardy as Congress considers ways to cut the federal debt.

Columbus is home to one of 124 Metropolitan Medical Response Systems in the nation, and those in charge of operating the 15-year-old program here say that losing federal dollars could be devastating in the event of catastrophe.

The money has made Columbus and its surrounding communities much better-prepared, paying for such things as mobile units to care for the sick or injured and caches of supplies and medication for EMS, public-health workers and others who would be on the front lines, said Caitlin Spontelli, Columbus metropolitan medical response coordinator.

It also pays for large-scale drills to prepare medical responders, and for the maintenance and organization of a medical reserve corps — a team of volunteers who helped staff clinics during the H1N1 mass vaccination.

Current recommendations call for the response systems’ funding — which has been between $30 million and $40 million over the past couple of years — to be rolled into a larger pool of money for homeland-security grants, said Kristen Greene, who works for Capitol Strategy Group and is a spokeswoman for the systems throughout the nation.

Without a separate fund for the programs, there’s widespread fear the programs will disappear, she said. Congress created them in response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Columbus’ most recent grant was for $317,419. Less than half the money pays for personnel. There are five other response systems stationed in Ohio’s larger cities.

Greene said she hasn’t heard from a single member of Congress who has a problem with the response systems, only those who are looking to make cuts and have general concerns about how money allocated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been managed.

Spontelli said she fears that medical first responders will be overlooked if Congress doesn’t reinstate the separate funding for her program.

Lauren Kulik, a spokeswoman for Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that the senator shares those concerns.

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