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Public Health Service Needs Ready Reserve To Back-Fill Jobs, Advocates Say


Americans can name most of the branches of the armed services - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force. But what about the unarmed branches, like the U.S. Public Health Service, which has an officer corps of more than 6,000 health professionals who can be deployed to a crisis worldwide? So why aren't more of them deploying? NPR's Quil Lawrence reports that Congress wants to fix that.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The uniformed Public Health Service is designed for disasters like this. Thousands deployed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They went to Liberia during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Fifteen hundred of them are now working on the coronavirus outbreak nationwide. More are needed. But these doctors and nurses have a day job, many of them with the Bureau of Prisons or the Indian Health Service. Admiral Brett Giroir leads the service.

BRETT GIROIR: So about 3,000 of the corps is actually delivering care on a daily basis to the Indian Health Service, to all the tribes throughout the country, including Alaska, to the Bureau of Prisons and to those in detention under Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

LAWRENCE: So every officer heading to, say, New York is leaving behind an empty exam room on a Native American reservation or in a federal prison. Again, Admiral Giroir.

GIROIR: So it is really impossible to deploy those because they're dealing with COVID-19 right now among some of the populations hit the hardest.

LAWRENCE: The obvious solution would be a ready reserve either to deploy to disasters or to backfill jobs so active officers can go. In fact, that solution has been in the works for 10 years.

BORIS LUSHNIAK: This whole idea of having a ready reserve has already been on the books since the Affordable Care Act. That, in fact, was a provision within that act.

LAWRENCE: Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak led the U.S. Public Health Service from 2010 to 2015. He says part of the Affordable Care Act was supposed to create a ready reserve, but it got lost in red tape and never happened.

LUSHNIAK: My hope is that the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps can really begin working on this ready reserve quickly.

LAWRENCE: The reason he's got that hope is that starting two years ago, Admiral Giroir began pushing to get a congressional fix. A group of military veterans in Congress got behind it, the bipartisan group called the For Country Caucus. When the coronavirus hit, they inserted the fix into the massive stimulus bill.

GIROIR: And fortunately, with the CARES Act that was just passed, Congress authorized us to do that, which is a real step forward. Obviously, if we had this years ago, we would have that reserve corps now and be ready. But I'm glad we have it now moving into the future.

LAWRENCE: But Congress and Health and Human Services are still working out the details about funding the reserve. Giroir has been a little busy. The president put him in charge of COVID testing nationwide. And the U.S. Public Health Service is stretched thin.

GIROIR: Right now, we could use every single one of those people. Right now, we have zero.

LAWRENCE: Giroir says best case, it will still take until winter for the ready reserve to be up and running.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.


Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.