Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General released a stinging new report that details serious issues facing the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System (NBIS). NBIS was launched in 2004 with the goal of integrating all of the biosurveillance programs across the US into a single system to enhance our capability to detect agents and disease trends and respond rapidly. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operates their BioSense program, to collect data on human health, but the data from that system is not integrated with data from the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, which is designed to detect the release of airborne biological agents. There are other surveillance systems in place and in development as well, and although you would be hard pressed to find anyone that thinks any of the systems are working optimally it is still important to try to integrate the programs into a single system (in case they ever do become robust and efficient).
The US has spent an estimated $32 billion on electronic surveillance systems and various other IT initiatives to address biodefense since 2001.
The report tells of inconsistent leadership and staffing, which has hampered NBIS delivery. In some cases many months were wasted with unnecessary administrative hurdles delaying the program. The few contracts that have been awarded under the program seem of questionable value, sometimes because the contractor was not given sufficient guidance to complete the work.
Most shocking to me was the fact that they have yet to finish a plan for implementation. The report stated plainly that, “As a result of the repeated transitions and staffing shortfalls, planning documents needed to guide information technology (IT) development have yet to be finalized. Program management has not effectively communicated and coordinated with stakeholders to secure the data, personnel, and information sharing agreements needed to support system development. Additionally, program management did not provide the contractor with adequate guidance, requirements input, or data sources to deliver a fully functional system. As such, the contractor may not fulfill NBIS capability and schedule requirements, which potentially could result in cost increases to the program.”
Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer, Jeffrey Runge MD, agreed with all of the findings and recommendations in the report and provided very constructive comments that indicate a sincere willingness to improve the program and stated that many of the IG’s recommendations were already being addressed. That is the nugget of good news here.