HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt today announced an initiative to transform the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps, which will enable this critical emergency response resource to address public health challenges more quickly and efficiently. The Commissioned Corps will increase its ranks, streamline its assignment and deployment process, and increase its ability to recruit the best and brightest to defend the nation's public health.
"Ever since its founding in 1798, the Commissioned Corps has attracted the best of our citizenry into its ranks to answer the call of compassion, of patriotism and of service," Secretary Leavitt said. "We are undertaking this transformation to ensure that this elite force is better-equipped to meet the public health needs and necessities of the future."
In remarks before officers today, Secretary Leavitt outlined his vision of the USPHS as an essential national resource to meet HHS' critical mission requirements; ready to respond rapidly to urgent public health challenges and emergencies; available to address needs in isolated, hazardous or other difficult-to-fill positions; and sought at the federal and state levels to help meet essential public health leadership and service roles. Over the next two months, strategies will be developed to increase the size of the corps and improve its ability to respond quickly to urgent public health needs. The Commissioned Corps seeks to:
- Increase the number of officers by 10 percent, to a total of 6,600 members;
- Improve response operations and team-oriented deployment process; and
- Change the recruitment process so that it includes stronger personal incentive programs and a better approach for assigning officers.
"Our officers treat disease, ensure the safety of food and medicine, and restore health and hope in times of greatest need," Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, M.D., said. "Increasing the number of Commissioned Corps officers and restructuring the deployment process will make us more agile and efficient while continuing to fulfill our daily mission."
As part of today's event, Dr. John Agwunobi was formally sworn in as assistant secretary for health (ASH) and an admiral in the USPHS Commissioned Corps by Secretary Leavitt. As the highest ranking officer in the USPHS Commissioned Corps, he will serve as the Secretary's primary advisor on matters involving the nation's public health and oversee the USPHS for the Secretary.
Dr. Agwunobi joins HHS from Florida's Department of Health, where he held the position of secretary of health and state health officer for the past four years. There, he directly advised Governor Jeb Bush on all public health assets in the state, was lead executive for 16,000 employees and oversaw a $2.2 billion annual budget. His work with the Florida Department of Health began in 2000, when he began as the deputy secretary and deputy health officer. Prior to that position, he worked in children's health for more than seven years in the Washington, D.C. area.
The USPHS is one of the seven uniformed services and is dedicated to protecting, promoting, and advancing health and safety. USPHS officers work around the world to help in times of disaster and to provide day-to-day health care for underserved populations in the United States.
Commissioned Corps officers have been deeply involved in responding to recent public health emergencies. More than 2,000 Commissioned Corps officers were deployed to the Gulf region before, during, and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They set up and staffed field hospitals and emergency medical clinics, treated sick and injured evacuees, ensured hospital structures, food supplies, and water supplies were safe, conducted disease surveillance, and worked closely with local and state health authorities to address other immediate and long-term public health needs.