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Medical Corps less able to help out

Jackson County Medical Reserve Corps volunteers can still be mobilized to help with disasters, but they won't be able to take on smaller tasks like handing out masks to protect against wildfire smoke.

Corps activities have been restricted due to funding and insurance liability issues.

The cadre of more than 100 volunteers — including nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, psychologists and social workers — has always been supported by grants. It was aided by a part-time coordinator and a volunteer leadership team, said registered nurse Carol Knapp, who was on the leadership team.

The corps had been receiving $27,000 per year in grants, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

That funding has been cut significantly, he said.

The corps has had a range of liability coverage providers, including the county, the federal government and La Clinica, which operates health care clinics, Knapp said. The coverage was largely dependent on the activities of the corps. For example, the county covered the corps when volunteers helped during an H1N1 flu outbreak, and the federal government covered Medical Reserve Corps across the nation for past flu-vaccination clinics, Knapp said.

Jordan said the county couldn't justify handling the risk of providing liability coverage for the corps.

"Risk-wise, the county can't be saddled with the liability. It puts the taxpayers at significant risk," he said.

The state now provides liability coverage for the corps. However, as a state-managed volunteer pool, the corps can only be mobilized during declared emergencies, Jordan said.

"It can't be used in non-emergency situations," he said.

Jordan said local officials tried to find a local organization to take the corps under its wing.

"We tried to resolve the funding and liability issues," he said. "We asked different community partners if they would partner with the Medical Reserve Corps. They said it was a valuable, useful tool, but no one had the resources to take on an unfunded program."

Knapp said she fears Southern Oregon could be hit with a disaster or emergency that doesn't get recognized by the state as such — leaving the Medical Reserve Corps standing on the sidelines when it could be helping.

"Not all disasters rise to the level of a state disaster," she said.

During a past outbreak of H1N1, Jackson and Josephine counties were hit harder than the rest of the state. The state did not declare a disaster, Knapp said.

The Medical Reserve Corps helped by assisting with flu shots and manning public call-in lines, she said.

Last summer when choking smoke engulfed the Rogue Valley, corps volunteers handed out face masks. It has also partnered with La Clinica to provide health care services to at-risk populations, Knapp said.

"There are a great number of ways we could be used that don't fall under the definition of disasters," Knapp said.

The nation has more than 900 Medical Reserve Corps groups. In addition to responding during emergencies, their activities include helping with obesity reduction, tobacco-cessation programs, vaccination clinics and heart health programs, according to the Office of the Surgeon General.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or by email at valdous@mailtribune.com.