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Health Corps Shift under Fire

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ATLANTA _ The Bush administration's proposed changes to the commissioned corps of the U.S. Public Health Service _ which includes about 800 researchers at the Atlanta-based CDC _ could leave vital programs vulnerable during emergencies, according to the union representing the uniformed medical officers.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson recently announced that he wants to increase the size and flexibility of the 6,000-member corps so that the 114-year-old service will be better prepared for bioterrorism, disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

The Commissioned Officers Association, the union representing about 70 percent of corps personnel, welcomes the idea of recruiting more doctors and nurses and modernizing the corps, Executive Director Jerry Farrell said this week.

But the group is concerned that the push for flexibility _ including a goal of making all corps officers available for emergency deployment, up from a third of them now _ places unfair demands on many researchers.

The group says changes could leave some programs in jeopardy during crises.

Among the requirements all officers would have to meet are Navy-based fitness tests. "We don't want to see a lab expert at the CDC who is at the top of his field driven out because he can't do the right numbers of push-ups," Farrell said.

The union is also worried that scientists specializing in smallpox and other bioterrorism issues might be dispatched to earthquakes or hurricanes when a terrorist attack could suddenly require their knowledge elsewhere, he said.

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, who met with corps members Tuesday, said in an interview afterward that the transformation of the service could accommodate their concerns.

"Even back during (the SARS crisis) we had an agreement with the surgeon general that deployment for public health emergencies would take precedence over other emergency response deployment," she said. "That's the kind of thing we just work out."

The changes, to be implemented next month, would not affect corps members until Jan. 1, Farrell said. But the union and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) are calling for congressional hearings on the plan.

Though the corps makes up less than 10 percent of employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officers are highly visible. Many have made a tradition of wearing their Navy-inspired black-and-white or summer khaki uniforms on Wednesdays.

The corps is one of seven U.S. uniformed services. The others are the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Corps officers _ including doctors, nurses, engineers, dentists, pharmacists and veterinarians _ also work at the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and various other agencies.

In addition to calling for all corps officers to be deployable, Thompson wants to recruit 100 more doctors and 1,000 more nurses, and place another 275 officers with the Indian Health Service, which serves Native Americans.

He also wants to establish a "ready reserve" to supplement the corps.

David Wahlberg writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail:

Cox News Service

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