A National Priority

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

EVEN BEFORE Sept. 11, 2001, emergency care specialists at Washington Hospital Center had been developing plans to better deal with the medical consequences of horrific events such as terrorism, disasters and epidemics. The result -- an emergency facility able to cope with catastrophe -- will become a reality only if Congress funds a project that is vital to the Washington area and important to the entire country.

To its credit, the Senate, with the support of the Bush administration, has included $15 million in a 2007 appropriations bill to start the project's construction. Called ER One, the facility would in normal times provide badly needed emergency treatment to people in the District and the surrounding region and, in the event of a mass disaster, could expand its treatment areas to handle 10 times the regular number of patients. Equally important, the facility was designed to take into account new medical challenges posed by terrorism and emerging diseases. An outbreak of smallpox, the impact of a "dirty bomb" or contagion from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are more than just theoretical possibilities for a hospital that treated the victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon as well as the 2001 anthrax scare.

The importance of the facility to the Washington area -- home to the federal government and by any measure at high risk for attack -- is clear. Five years after Sept. 11, the area is simply not prepared as it should be to handle disaster. The facility also would serve as a prototype, providing valuable resources and lessons in emergency care. Already, health-care professionals from other parts of the country have incorporated concepts from ER One into their own operations.

Now is the time of reckoning for the project. Washington Hospital Center, which provides more acute care than any other hospital in the region, is operating out of badly outmoded and cramped emergency facilities. If federal money is not forthcoming, hospital officials said, they will have no choice but to build a facility with the money on hand. Eventually, $100 million will be needed for ER One, with the hospital providing some $25 million. Some House members are concerned that state formula funding would be used to pay the federal share, and there's a chance Congress will leave town without reaching any spending agreement.

In many respects, planners of ER One imagined the unimaginable as they developed specialized equipment and patient protocols. What's really unimaginable is not acting now to secure the nation's capital.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company