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Government's swine flu response: a factor in health reform?

Delays in swine flu vaccines may lead to less confidence in government's ability to manage any big expansion of new duties under health reform legislation. Some defend US swine-flu response.

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Some 1,200 people braved rain 39-degree-temperatures on October 24 to queue up for a free H1N1 flu vaccine at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago. President Obama has declared the H1N1 virus a national emergency.

Frank Polich/REUTERS

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As Congress finalizes a reform bill that seems poised to expand government's role in the healthcare sector, Americans are watching how the government handles a real-life, real-time public health issue: the swine flu.

The short supplies of a new swine flu vaccine, for instance, could make one or two lawmakers think twice about voting for a health reform bill that gives more authority to government – perhaps enough to change the vote outcome. Proponents of comprehensive health reform, on the other hand, say the government's handling of the pandemic has been competent overall and indicates that Washington can indeed help manage the nation's healthcare system.

"I anticipate that swine flu will come up in the [health reform] debate in the Senate and the House" in coming weeks, says Julius Hobson, a long-time health policy analyst in Washington.

The White House has acknowledged at least twice that broader judgments about the administration's swine-flu response could play into the broader healthcare reform debate.

In late summer, a senior White House official told The Wall Street Journal that "the expectation is that we should be able to [handle the swine flu pandemic] competently ... and judging the government by how well it does with this is not unreasonable."

Another administration official, also without attribution, told Newsweek's Howard Fineman last month: "Here is a chance to show government at its best, doing what only government can do well. Unless we screw it up."

Shortages of swine flu vaccine (more here, for one, have already cast doubt on the government's ability to react with speed and precision to a major health issue.

John Leifer, a health insurance and policy analyst, told the Kansas City Star that the White House may have allowed expectations to outgrow the availability and effectiveness of the swine flu vaccine, thus jeopardizing critical votes on a reform package.

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