Under the hot glare of public opinion in Carville, La., population 950, the Office of Management and Budget has agreed to amend a provision in its controversial contracting-out policy that threatened the jobs of 120 employes of the National Hansen's Disease Center.
The center, founded in 1894, is the only federal facility specializing in the care of victims of Hansen's disease, or leprosy. It has about 360 patients, 120 of whom are employed by the federal government at the center.
So when word got around earlier this year that the Health and Human Services Department was looking to save money by shifting jobs to the private sector, patients and employes alike got on the horn to Washington. The contracting-out policy, they argued, didn't take into account the longstanding relationship between patients and employes in the Carville center, and it didn't take into account the difficulty many of the leprosy victims would face in getting other jobs.
The administration, however, found Carville a particularly attractive place for contracting-out. Since 1917, under the mistaken belief that they faced a significant risk of getting leprosy, workers there have received "leprosy pay," which the administration says makes their salaries 25 percent higher than those of other civil servants.
At a hearing in Carville last Friday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House Health subcommittee, produced a letter from OMB Deputy Director Joseph A. Wright and announced that a way out had been found. Wright wrote Waxman that the OMB was planning to amend its policy to let government hospitals avoid contracting-out "if the agency's chief medical director determines that in-house performance would be in the best interests of patient care."
That means the decision is up to Dr. Edward N. Brandt Jr., assistant secretary of HHS for health. But Richard Ashbaugh, acting director of the Bureau of Medical Services, who had just finished defending the administration's policy, told Waxman that in light of OMB's decision HHS probably would drop its contracting-out plans.