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Emergency medical response program threatened by federal budget cuts

Jul 09, 2015

[Taken from The Hill's Congress Blog, July 8, 2015]

By LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH

A life-saving emergency medical response program staffed by more than 200,000 volunteer healthcare professionals and others across the United States is threatened by a devastating 55 percent cut in federal funds that was recently approved by a U.S. Senate committee.

The program, called the Medical Reserve Corps, is a national network of volunteers organized locally to protect the health and safety of their communities. It deploys doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, mental health professionals and non-medical volunteers with specialized skills who assist healthcare professionals to care for people in emergencies.

But despite all this good work by the Medical Reserve Corps, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted to slash the budget of the organization from $9 million this year to just $4 million in the 2016 fiscal year that begins in October.    

If these big cuts make it through the Senate and the House as part of next year’s federal budget, the Medical Reserve Corps will be forced to cut back on its activities, leaving millions of people more vulnerable just when they need help the most.

There are nearly 1,000 Medical Reserve Corps units, scattered through all 50 states and many U.S. territories. A survey by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) found that two-thirds of the Medical Reserve Corps units are part of their local health departments. The rest are run by a broad range of other organizations, including emergency management agencies, volunteer centers, hospitals, colleges and universities, medical societies and civic and religious organizations.  

The role of the volunteers is particularly critical because cuts in federal, state and local government funding for local health departments around the nation have resulted in the elimination of 51,700 jobs at the local health departments since 2008, a NACCHO study published in June found. The Medical Reserve Corps volunteers have taken on some of the work formerly carried out by these local health department employees.

Medical Reserve Corps volunteers rush to the scenes of natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, transportation disasters like airliner crashes and train derailments, major infectious disease threats like H1N1 (originally referred to as Swine Flu) or Ebola, terrorist attacks and other mass-casualty incidents.

For example, following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, more than 6,000 Medical Reserve Corps volunteers from 150 units supported the emergency response and recovery efforts.

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, more than 2,000 Medical Reserve Corps volunteers swung into action and donated more than 18,000 hours of their time. The volunteers provided medical care to people hurt in the deadly storm, helped operate emergency shelters and distributed food and clothing.

And when bombs planted by terrorists went off at the Boston Marathon in 2013 – killing three people and sending 260 people (including 16 who lost limbs) to local hospitals – the first medical emergency responders who rushed to help the injured were 151 Medical Reserve Corps volunteers who were already on the scene to treat the typical injuries some runners suffer in the race.

When not dealing with emergencies, Medical Reserve Corps volunteers spend time training and working on other projects to promote good health, such as community health education and vaccination programs. While the volunteers don’t get paid, they need funds for supplies, medications, training and equipment.

The Medical Reserve Corps has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was created as a demonstration project in 2002 under the administration of President George W. Bush.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, federal officials realized there would be a need for a major emergency medical response should terrorists succeed in carrying out a mass casualty attack in this country.

No one knows when the next emergency will occur. But we know with certainty that at some point in the future hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, disease outbreaks, disastrous accidents, bombings and mass shootings are bound to take place. At these terrible times, the United States will need an emergency medical response infrastructure in place, with skilled and dedicated professionals ready to get to work immediately.

Local health departments and other organizations that work with Medical Reserve Corps units are doing outstanding work, and the volunteers themselves selflessly and heroically give of their time and sometimes expose themselves to dangerous situations to help people in need of medical assistance.

Cutting funding for the Medical Reserve Corps is a risky gamble with the health and safety of the American people. Congress should not take this gamble. It should restore full funding to the Medical Reserve Corps to save lives and strengthen our national security.

Hasbrouck, a former local and state health commissioner, is executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). He served earlier as an official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.