Congress Examines Flaws in Tuberculosis Response House and Senate committees Wednesday had hearings on how an Atlanta lawyer with extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis managed to travel out of the country and back.
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Congress Examines Flaws in Tuberculosis Response

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Congress Examines Flaws in Tuberculosis Response

Congress Examines Flaws in Tuberculosis Response

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The case of the globetrotting tuberculosis patient landed on Capitol Hill today. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate grilled the heads of the CDC and the border patrol. Their central question was: why was it so hard to stop one Atlanta lawyer with highly drug-resistant TB from going to Greece to get married?

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: From the beginning, this case has been all about a failure to communicate. As if to underscore that point, this morning's Senate Health Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin had trouble making phone contact with TB patient Andrew Speaker who was to testify from his Hospital room in Denver.

Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat, Iowa): We're trying to get a witness who cannot be here to be here, at least telephonically.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. ANDREW SPEAKER (Lawyer): Hello.

Senator Harkin: Hello. Is this Mr. Speaker? This is Senator Harkin in Washington. Can you hear us?

ROVNER: But before Speaker got to tell his side, the committee heard from Julie Gerberding, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She defended the agency's slow response to news that Speaker and his drug-resistant TB had flown to Europe. She said her quarantine officers first had to perform a full investigation.

Dr. JULIE LOUISE GERBERDING (Director, Center for Disease Control and Prevention): We can't just call the world and say there's a itinerant tuberculosis patient on the loose. We have to first validate this.

ROVNER: Gerberding also defended what has become a key point of contention in the saga - what happened when CDC officials track Speaker down in Rome. By then, they had learned that he had a particularly dangerous strain of TB and warned him not to take a commercial flight.

Today, Gerberding said the CDC couldn't offer him a flight home on its plane for safety reasons.

Dr. GERBERDING: Unfortunately, our aircraft is not configured to allow safe transport of patients with respiratory diseases that require isolation. There is no way to completely separate the air in the airplane from the pilots or the crew of the aircraft.

ROVNER: But that's not how Speaker and his wife remember it.

Mr. SPEAKER: I don't know where the stuff about the health risks on the plane. We - that was never mentioned to us. We're just told that the CDC doesn't have any funding to put private individuals on planes. You know, there's $7 million to have them sit there a year but nothing to actually use them. So, my father have been called earlier that day and told that he - and her father had been called earlier that day and they've both been told the only option was for them to raise the money to get me home. And I was told that if I didn't come up with - their estimates were up to $140,000 - to get myself home, I would have to stay there and be treated.

ROVNER: Speaker said afraid that if he stayed in Italy, he might not get the treatment he needed to survive the often-fatal form of TB he has. So he and his new wife, instead, hopped a plane to Prague, then flew to Canada where they rented a car to drive back to the U.S. And that's when the next mistake happened. Even though Speaker's passport had been flagged with a note, ordering that he be detained as a public health risk, an agent at the Champlain, New York, border crossing waived him through.

At the House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Ralph Basham, the head of U.S. Customs And Border Protection took full responsibility.

Mr. RALPH BASHAM (Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection): CBP had an opportunity to detain Mr. Speaker at the border and we missed. That missed opportunity is inexcusable.

ROVNER: Many lawmakers seem to share that feeling about the entire event, including Republican Senator Arlen Specter. He ticked off all the billions of dollars he's helped funnel to the health and border protection agencies over the last years.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): In essence, we want something for our money. Been a lot of money. We expect some high level performance.

ROVNER: Speaker's doctors say he's facing many more months of grueling treatment. Judging from today's hearings, health and border protection officials can expect more unpleasantness of their own.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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