CDC backing off NIOSH reorganization — for now

Stakeholders not convinced of institute’s future

Occupational health leaders are guardedly optimistic about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) abandonment — at least for now — of reorganization plans that would have changed the organization of NIOSH. But one industry association that opposed the reorganization, which would have made NIOSH a subgroup of an umbrella center for environmental and occupational health and safety, does not believe the independence of NIOSH is secure, and is planning to ask Congress to make NIOSH part of the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

CDC director Julie Gerberding announced nearly a year ago that she would reorganize CDC’s programs into four coordinating centers. Under the plan, NIOSH — along with the National Center for Environmental Health, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control — would be part of the coordinating center for environmental health, injury prevention, and occupational health.

Criticism began immediately about moving NIOSH deeper into CDC’s bureaucracy, with industry leaders fearing the change would mean a loss of emphasis on occupational health research and, consequently, reduced spending on NIOSH.

"NIOSH is the only federal agency that deals with occupational health research, and that’s why it’s important," says Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). AIHA has openly expressed concerns about what the proposed reorganization would mean to NIOSH.

Because NIOSH is involved with research, education, and training on a national level, Trippler says, its individuality and independence is important.

AIHA and other stakeholders in NIOSH also were unhappy that they were not consulted about the reorganization plans before Gerberding announced them.

The CDC has taken some initial steps toward consolidating overlapping CDC and NIOSH operations, including moving NIOSH budgeting functions from NIOSH offices to CDC headquarters last October. But in late November, following the issuance of strongly worded directions from Congress, included in the fiscal year 2005 budget, instructing the CDC to make no changes to the organization of NIOSH, the CDC changed course.

Congressional appropriators attached report language to the 2005 appropriations bill directing the CDC "to make no changes to NIOSH’s current operating procedures and organizational structure and ensure that no funds or personnel will be transferred from NIOSH to other components of CDC by means other than traditional reprogramming of funds."

In response, the CDC announced it would comply with the Congressional direction and not tamper with the status quo.

NIOSH future still questionable

"If you take a look at what Congress said, there is a lot of ambiguity to what happened," Trippler says, when asked if the Congressional direction and CDC reaction mean things would not change with NIOSH. "Some personnel, like communications and printing personnel, had already been shifted to the CDC from NIOSH, and I am not sure they have been sent back."

Of concern to AIHA and other stakeholders is that NIOSH retain its budget for use in occupational health research. "The CDC has a lot of authority over the budget at NIOSH," Trippler says. "They can maintain status quo, but can still maintain control over the budget. There is going to be a lot of interest in what will take place with NIOSH down the road."

He reports that AIHA will be drafting a letter asking Congress to move NIOSH and align it with another agency, such as the Department of Labor or — preferably, as far as AIHA is concerned — the NIH. "The research focus of NIH would be an excellent complement to NIOSH’s research efforts," he says. "We’re asking Congress to request a [General Accounting Office] study, to find out if NIOSH should be moved; and if so, where?"

Trippler says the current controversy over the CDC reorganization’s effect on NIOSH makes now the perfect time to assess NIOSH. "Since 1970, NIOSH has been in the CDC, but things change," he points out. "The CDC is now more devoted to public health, rather than occupational health."

Changes in leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), OSHA, and NIOSH also could be factors, industry leaders say. Not only will a new HHS secretary have an influence on where NIOSH lands, but there are concerns that there could be a change in leadership within NIOSH. Current NIOSH director, John Howard, MD, is considered a candidate to helm OSHA.

"There are lots of reasons we’re all going to be watching what happens with a great deal of interest," says Trippler.

For more information, contact:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Futures Initiative. Web: www.cdc.gov/futures.

Aaron Trippler, Director, Government Affairs, American Industrial Hygiene Association. Phone: (703) 846-0730. E-mail: atrippler@aiha.org.