‘Tis the season to improve processing times for medical cards

The U.S. Coast Guard has yet to fully address slow processing times for medical cards. Capt. Sweeney has some suggestions.
The U.S. Coast Guard has yet to fully address slow processing times for medical cards. Capt. Sweeney has some suggestions.

Every American mariner must have a current medical certificate to be eligible to sail. Without it, we cannot obtain a merchant mariner credential and employers can’t legally hire us.  

This rule, stipulated in accordance with U.S. Coast Guard Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08, contains the procedures for doctors and nurses conducting the medical examinations. Those vary depending on what credential the mariner holds.  

Merchant mariners need to renew their medical certificates at least every five years. Entry-level seafarers, like ordinary seamen or wipers, must pass the requirements listed in CG-719KE; more experienced mariners such as officers, able seamen, and qualified members of the engine department, must meet slightly different standards detailed in CG-719K.

Ask any mariner and he or she will tell you that being a maritime professional these days means paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork to maintain our documents. All this has resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard taking longer to return our approved licenses and certifications — something even the commander of the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center (NMC) acknowledges. Capt. Bradley Clare, who leads the NMC, recommends medical certificate renewals be made at least 90 days before certificates expire to prevent any lapse.

At the same time, some unions and other industry insiders are now espousing 180-240 days — six to eight months ahead of time — to ensure a smooth renewal process. It’s no wonder my good friend William, who plans to upgrade his unlimited chief’s license later this year, is worried. He’s not sure if the medical form paperwork he submitted in September will be taken care of when he pays off his ship in December. 

Each year, the Coast Guard receives close to 60,000 applications for new medical cards. With each of these applications running 10 pages or more, that means over 600,000 pieces of paperwork. It’s no wonder it has been taking longer for American merchant mariners to get their new medical cards. To its credit, for the first time in history on Aug. 1, 2018, the service changed the requirement that we must submit our medical applications to a Regional Exam Center (REC). Mariners may still submit medical applications to an REC, which sends them to the NMC after reviewing them. But mariners can now email these documents directly to the NMC. This was done in hopes of reducing the time involved to renew medical certificates. 

The Coast Guard has also discovered that tens of thousands of applications were filled out incorrectly or were incomplete. So, in May 2019, they established a dedicated website to help avoid paperwork problems that slowed down or stopped the process of obtaining new medical applications or renewals. I know mariners who browsed the site and found it useful — although some questions they had were left unanswered.

By attempting to eliminate the “double-handling” and allowing us to send our medical certificate applications directly to the NMC, the Coast Guard made a valid attempt to speed things up and streamline the process. Unfortunately, in the four years the changes have been in effect, it has not reduced the time it takes to get our certificates. That’s why, in my opinion, they need to take the next step. 

It’s obvious that to process our medical applications effectively, the Coast Guard needs to significantly increase the staff that handle our applications. One way to achieve this would be to greatly expand the number of personnel at the NMC, which would then logically lead to their handling of all U.S. merchant mariner documentation — not just our medical certificates. The other option would be to add more trained professionals at the RECs and allow them to not only process, which they have always done, but also to issue new documents without NMC review. 

Either way, eliminating the remaining “double-handling” of forms would result in a faster turnaround. Then, whoever was not issuing documents could be there in person to answer the myriad questions mariners have about obtaining, renewing or upgrading their licenses.

Now that would be a Christmas present all U.S. merchant mariners would appreciate.

Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays, and smooth sailin’.

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. Email him at captsweeney@outlook.com.