In a new twist in the trans-Atlantic health scare triggered by tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker, a Senate committee will hold hearings Wednesday to find out why the CDC didn't use one of its emergency jets to bring Speaker home from Europe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has three private jets to use in case of an emergency. They cost $7 million a year for taxpayers, and in the last year, they were used nine times.
That has some people asking why one of those planes was not used to bring Speaker home when he was in Rome last month with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis.
"I can't think of a better use for government funds than to bring someone who is ill, who is potentially exposing others to a dangerous disease, to bring that person home and into appropriate care," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health.
Speaker insists that when the CDC called to tell him he had a dangerous form of TB, officials offered him no hope of transportation home from Europe.
"So the only option, unless you can pay to get yourself home, is we're going to send hospital and authorities in the morning to take you into isolation," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer.
CDC Account Still Evolving
The CDC now admits that the doctor who first talked to Speaker "may have said a plane was not an option" because he did not know it was. Officials say that they were considering the use of a CDC plane -- or even a military plane -- but that Speaker left too quickly.
"As people know that is not a snap-of-the-finger kind of thing to do," CDC director Dr. Martin Cetron said at a news conference.
The CDC planes cost $3,000 an hour to operate and are usually only used to carry CDC staff to emergency situations, but they have been used for other business. One was used regularly for political travel by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, until Congress started asking questions.
With the Speaker case, the CDC points out that once he arrived in New York, officials used a plane to fly him to Atlanta. They say this was a trial run and things didn't work the way they should have.
Levi said that the CDC's biggest bungle, even if it was moving toward a decision to use a plane to fly Speaker back from Europe, was its less-than-comforting phone call with the TB patient.
"The most fundamental element of infectious diseases control is creating circumstances [and] making it easy for the patient to comply," he said.