Who is responsible for the program?
In Morris County the program is coordinated by the Division of Public Health a division of the Morris County Department of Law and Public Safety. Some municipalities have established MRC units.
On the national level, President Bush tasked the Department of Health and Human Services, under Secretary Tommy Thompson, with developing and implementing the MRC. Secretary Thompson designated the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) to take lead responsibility within HHS to develop a program to promote and support the development of the Medical Reserve Corps. The Office of the Surgeon General undertook this responsibility in March 2002.
Are there already programs like the Medical Reserve Corps in operation? If so, why is The Medical Reserve Corps necessary?
There are similar programs that exist, with and without the support of the federal government. This includes, for example, the Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT). There are, however, only 23 DMAT teams in the United States. Also, these teams are “federalized” during large-scale emergencies and may not be available to assist in their home communities in the event of a large-scale national emergency. MRC units, on the other hand, are created by communities for local use and can only be activated by their local communities.
There is a big concern about liability issues for health professionals. Is the US Government doing anything about this?
In NJ, during a public health emergency, the Governor may activate the Emergency Health Powers Act which will provide liability coverage to MRC volunteers.
Another form of liability coverage comes under the Office of Emergency Management. If a municipality or County OEM activates volunteers that are listed as municipal or county assets, there will be liability coverage.
From the federal perspective, the US Government, health profession organizations and voluntary organizations are fully aware of this concern. It must be kept in mind, however, that in our federal system of government, tort law is primarily a state responsibility. All states have some form of “good Samaritan legislation,” although this legislation is limited in its protections. The Volunteer Protection Act (“VPA”) (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 14501 et. Seq.) provides qualified immunity for liability for volunteers and, subject to exceptions, preempts inconsistent state laws on the subject, except for those that provide protections stronger than those contained in the VPA.
Under the VPA, a volunteer of a nonprofit organization or governmental entity is immune from liability for harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of the organization or entity if: (1) the act or omission was within the scope of the volunteer’s responsibilities in the organization or entity; (2) if required, the volunteer was properly licensed, certified, or authorized by the appropriate state authorities for the activities or practice giving rise to the claim; (3) the harm was not caused by “willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer,” and (4) the harm was not caused by the volunteer’s operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft , or other vehicle for which the state requires the operator to possess a license or maintain insurance. The VPA defines a volunteer as “an individual performing services for a nonprofit organization or a governmental entity which does not receive compensation (other than reasonable reimbursement or allowance for expenses actually incurred); or any other thing of value in lieu of compensation, in excess of $500 per year…”
The VPA is helpful because it provides baseline legal protection amidst a wide variety of state laws. Nonetheless, because the VPA’s protections are not absolute, each MRC unit should consult with an attorney for a more detailed analysis of the law’s protections and limitations.
A number of health profession organizations as well as the US Congress are examining the issue of appropriate liability protection for health providers during public health emergencies.
There are immunities afforded to health care workers, including volunteers, responding to a public health emergency under the Emergency Health Powers Act, recent New Jersey legislation that affords additional immunity to health care providers responding specifically to COVID as well as immunities set forth in the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act), which is specific to providers administering vaccines.