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September 8, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Volunteers Face Legal Questions

Thousands of health care and public health professionals have volunteered to provide medical assistance to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The assistance of volunteer health professionals is an essential element of most federal, state and local public health emergency-response plans.

“It is foreseeable that health professionals who volunteer to treat or assist people incur a certain amount of personal risk and harm,” said James G. Hodge Jr., JD, LMM, executive director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Georgetown University Law Center. Multiple legal issues may arise, he says. “For example, who is responsible if a volunteer is sued for malpractice? Are volunteers covered by the insurance of their employers, the governmental entity, or the relief agency they are assisting? Can a volunteer licensed in another state practice in one of the impacted Gulf Coast states? If a volunteer is injured or contracts a serious illness, is he or she covered by health insurance or workers compensation? These are questions that need to be considered,” explained Hodge.

Last year, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) asked Hodge and his colleagues, including Lance A. Gable, research fellow and project director, and Stephanie Cálves, senior researcher at the Center, to assess the legal and regulatory issues facing volunteer health professionals and their national and state partners. Their report examines such issues as the authority of states to declare an emergency; the civil and criminal liability of volunteer health professionals, health care entities and state administrators; the licensure and credentialing of volunteer health professionals; and workers compensation issues.

“In the report, we explain the legal environment that these volunteers operate under,” said Hodge. Although the HRSA report specifically examines issues facing those volunteers participating in HRSA-funded Emergency System for the Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals (ESAR-VHP), Hodge says other medical volunteers may also find the information useful. Additional information for volunteer health professionals responding to Hurricane Katrina is available at the Center for Law and the Public’s Health website.

“As we are seeing in the hurricane-response efforts, volunteer health professionals are essential to meet surge capacity during emergencies. Understanding the legal issues and the environment in which volunteers serve is important. They need to be aware of and plan for potential risks when helping those in need,” explained Hodge.—Tim Parsons

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.