Expert panel created to review Coast Guard medical-evaluation system

Expert panel created to review Coast Guard medical-evaluation system

Confronting serious backlogs in its new mariner medical-evaluation system, the U.S. Coast Guard is assembling an expert panel to suggest improvements.

The Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee will identify potential modifications to the National Maritime Center’s (NMC) evaluation process. The panel also may help establish better criteria for ailments and medicines spelled out in the most recent Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC).

The Coast Guard announced the creation of the committee in June and set an August deadline for applications from people interested in serving. The panel is to consist of 10 medical professionals and four representatives from the maritime industry.

The health-care representatives have expertise in occupational medicine and have routinely done merchant mariner physicals, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. James Court Smith, the committee’s assistant designated federal official.

“Obviously, the main thing they’re going to be working on right off the bat is the National Maritime Center and the credential issuance,” said Smith, of the Office of Vessel Activities.

The NMC has set a goal of completing medical evaluations in an average of six days. In early 2009, the average was over 90 days because of a workload that far exceeded the Coast Guard’s forecast. A staffing surge reduced the average to 19 days. Still, too many files are still sitting around for months while the applicants sweat it out, said Edward Schultz, mariner licensing counselor at the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York.

“Mariners are getting frustrated,” said Schultz, who assists 125 mariners a month. “The biggest issue is (the NMC) doesn’t have enough qualified people to handle the medical inquiries that they need to handle.”

The Coast Guard rotated a temporary corps of health-care professionals through the NMC this year to reduce the backlog. NMC officials vow to hire 10 permanent medical professionals for the department this year, but recruitment has been slow.

“They don’t have the qualified people who can go through (applications) and ascertain what these medications are,” Schultz said. “The file just sits on somebody’s desk for eight to 12 to 14 weeks before someone looks at it and says, •Oh, this is not that serious.'”

Accidents such as the 2007 Cosco Busan incident, in which a containership struck the San Francisco Bay Bridge while under the direction of a bar pilot who was taking multiple medications, have pressured the Coast Guard to stress maritime safety in its medical-review processes. The new NVIC offers guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable medical conditions and rules for certain medications.

“Now, as we get a better sense of how people are affected … as some things are put into practice, we might see that changes are needed to it,” Smith said. “We may ask the committee to review the specific medication and the risk it presents on a ship.”

Schultz said the NMC’s new location in Martinsburg, W.Va., may be presenting recruitment difficulties. The new building is a 90-minute drive from Washington, D.C. A related problem for mariners seeking information about their medical reviews is that the 1-888-I-ASK-NMC help desk is understaffed and “useless,” he said.

Schultz said the Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee should help the Coast Guard correct some of the problems.

“It’s a good idea, as long as they get the right people,” Schultz said.

“A 30-day (licensing) turnaround is acceptable,” he continued. “To go three, four, five months, that’s not acceptable. Right now you have guys sitting around, not able to work because they can’t get their license processed.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the White House will review the proposed members of the committee, which reports to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen. Smith said the committee could begin meeting as early as October.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff