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Published: Saturday, 2/18/2006

Medical liability thwarts volunteers

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FREMONT - Community Health Services had money, staff members, and a mobile clinic ready to head for the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where medical providers are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

But the Fremont center's volunteer caravan never got rolling last month because their medical liability coverage couldn't be extended outside Ohio because of a federal law.

"We actually raised money in Fremont and from the other health centers around Ohio to go," said Joe Liszak, chief executive officer for Community Health Services. "It wasn't costing the government a dime. These were all donated funds for this project, and we still couldn't go."

Doctors and nurses from community health centers around the country have run into the same insurance problem.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services helped Mr. Liszak's agency and others work around the legal restriction last fall. Federal officials in the Gulf Coast region deputized the volunteer medical staff members, making them de facto federal employees.

That allowed Community Health Services to send a mobile hospital to Bay St. Louis, Miss., in September, less than a month after the storm struck.

But by last month, the department had ended that emergency program.

U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R., Mich.), a physician, was himself blocked from traveling to the Gulf Coast to help medical providers. So Mr. Schwarz introduced a bill that would cover federally insured medical workers for duty in declared disaster areas. U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Old Fort), whose district includes Fremont, signed on as a co-sponsor.

Mr. Gillmor met Wednesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to discuss the issue.

"I thought it was important to stress to Secretary Leavitt that while the disaster has passed in the Gulf region, the need for medical services remains," the congressman said in a statement. "Our volunteers should not be denied the opportunity to use their expertise for the benefit of the most in need."

Mr. Liszak's agency hoped to assist Coastal Family Health Center in Biloxi, Miss.

Joe Dawsey, executive director of the Mississippi center, said medical providers in the Gulf region are rebuilding facilities and struggling to offer care to residents who lost their jobs, homes, and vehicles.

Mr. Dawsey's center covers all three counties along the state's Gulf Coast. Of its nine medical clinics, four were destroyed in the hurricane and the rest were damaged.

"We still have a major need for medical help," Mr. Dawsey said, adding that he'd like to see the law revised. "I think it needs to be changed, and I honestly don't see any purpose in the rule," he said. "I can't see any benefit from that rule."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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