Medical Corps runs into obstacles

  1. Liability, medical issues stall hunt for volunteers
    By Richard Wronski
    Tribune staff reporter

    March 10, 2003

    Just over a year ago, President Bush urged Americans still reeling from 9/11 to "fight evil with acts of goodness" and announced the formation of local volunteer groups of medical professionals to assist in public-health efforts and emergencies.

    Seeded by $200,000 in grants from the federal government, four fledgling Medical Reserve Corps units recently were launched in Illinois, including ones in Oak Park and Kane County.

    But enthusiasm for this civilian corps has been dampened by concerns over legal and medical liability issues. The problems threaten to stall volunteer recruiting, and likely will require state legislation to solve.

    Although Bush signed an appropriations bill recently that includes $10 million for up to 200 more medical corps units, organizers remain concerned about whether the administration and Congress will make the necessary long-term financial commitment for the program to grow into a viable network.

    The medical corps are an outgrowth of the USA Freedom Corps, the volunteer service initiative Bush unveiled in his 2002 State of the Union address.

    The idea was to tap the expertise of active and retired health-care professionals to supplement existing local emergency response units. The corps would develop community-based plans for dealing with crises, provide organizational skills and possibly treat the least seriously injured or sickened victims. They also would assist in ongoing public health campaigns, such as immunization programs.

    "We'll be an extra pair of hands to help out," said volunteer Linda Porter, a retired nurse from St. Charles. "We're people who aren't going to pass out at the sight of blood."

    In November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded more than $2 million in start-up money to 42 corps programs in 27 states. Illinois led the list with four $50,000 grants. In addition to Kane County and Oak Park, programs in Winnebago County and Peoria won funding.

    Kane County has used its grant to hire a full-time coordinator, and has developed a list of about 30 prospective volunteers, including nurses, paramedics and doctors.

    But Kane County's volunteers won't be officially enlisted until administrators are confident that medical liability and other issues are resolved.

    "Quite honestly, that is our biggest challenge right now," said Michael Isaacson, emergency response administrator for the county Health Department. "It's an unknown area."

    The state's Good Samaritan Act is intended to give legal protection to people who respond to a spontaneous emergency situation, such as providing medical care at a roadside accident. There is also a federal Volunteer Protection Act, which provides qualified liability immunity.

    But involvement in an ongoing volunteer program such as the medical corps is uncharted waters legally, officials said.

    "You can't expect a physician or nurse to put their career on the line if they're not going to be protected in some way," Kane County coordinator Laura Andersen said. "As far as bringing somebody on board, I could not ask somebody with a clear conscience until I know that these issues are resolved."

    Officials also are worried about the well-being of corps members. Volunteers generally are excluded from state worker's compensation coverage.

    " If a volunteer falls down the steps in a clinic and breaks a leg, who is going to compensate them for their injuries?" Andersen asked.

    Oregon and other states already are working to ensure their Good Samaritan laws cover volunteers responding to terrorist attacks. Saul Morse, general counsel for the Illinois State Medical Society, said Illinois would need to do the same, as there is no clear-cut immunity from liability for a physician doing volunteer work.

    Meanwhile, more medical corps units may be in the works. The additional $10 million in fiscal 2003 could mean expansion of the program to more communities, said Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    Nevertheless, issues of funding and liability haven't dissuaded volunteers like Porter. Three years ago, she decided she'd had her fill of working as a registered nurse after a 30-year career.

    "I just got tired of the hospital routine--the lifting, the working weekends and holidays," Porter, 52, said. "I just haven't gone back."

    But after 9/11, she was inspired by how former medical personnel were volunteering their skills. Hearing about the medical corps prompted her to sign up. "I just figured I could help out in some capacity," she said.

    Dr. Judy Gordon, who practices family medicine at a VA outpatient clinic in Oak Lawn, said volunteering for Oak Park's program would complement her work on a master's degree in public health. "It's a way of getting involved in public health without quitting my job," said Gordon, 47.

    Gordon experienced how chaotic a disaster situation can be while living in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

    "It was something that, if you lived in south Florida at the time, you became involved," she said. "It was pretty devastating. Even after that, everyone was so jumpy at the hospital that whenever there was any kind of hurricane warning, we had to stay overnight and get a whole plan together."

    Georgeen Polyak, Oak Park's public health director, said the village's medical corps developed a list of about 30 volunteers without hiring a coordinator.

    Polyak said organizational skills are just as important as medical training and that one Oak Park volunteer is a retired bank manager.

    "We learned from the experience of other communities, including New York City and the World Trade Center, which were inundated with spontaneous volunteers," Polyak said. "What they really needed were trained volunteers."

    Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune
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