Responding to Disaster: Public Health Lawyers on the Ground

May 28, 2013, 1:12 PM

Aiding in the response and recovery effort in Oklahoma following last week’s tornadoes are several state disaster medical assistance teams (DMATs), requested by Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin. The New Mexico DMAT includes a member, Cliff Rees, who is experienced in law as it pertains to public health emergencies. Rees is the practice director of the Network for Public Health Law’s Western Region.

NewPublicHealth spoke with James G. Hodge, Jr., JD, LLM, Principal Investigator/Director of the Network for Public Health Law’s Western Region, about how knowledge of law during an emergency can help speed assistance to victims.

NewPublicHealth: What is Cliff Rees’ role on the ground?

James Hodge: As a member of the DMAT team, he is well trained in many areas of response and is working with his team to provide needed assistance on multiple fronts. However, Cliff is also capable of assessing legal concerns on the ground if they come up.

NPH: What are some of those concerns?

James Hodge: Health practitioners may be concerned about liability if they work outside their scope of practice, or whether they’re covered for workers compensation if they are injured—such as lifting heavy equipment in an emergency. These and others concerns can stop volunteers from taking critical steps in an emergency. 

NPH: And what are they told?

James Hodge: It depends on what emergency powers are in effect. Cliff and other skilled attorneys can quickly identify these powers, and provide practical guidance around them. The Network for Public Health Law stands ready in any domestic emergency to provide this type of real-time emergency guidance.  

NPH: What is an example of a concern that comes up?

James Hodge: Incidents during Hurricane Katrina provide good examples because of the enormous patient surges at hospitals that had too few doctors, nurses and equipment, but still needed to treat patients quickly. The risks to patients in this type of environment are heightened, leading the Institute of Medicine over the past 3 years to generate national guidance on how best to implement crisis standards of care (including legal input).  

And it’s not just a concern for individuals. Hospitals and communities have to ask if they can accept volunteers without major liability implications. In these cases, varying state laws may provide pathways to facilitate volunteer efforts.  

>>Bonus Links:

  • Watch a Public Service Announcement from the Ad Council on one way to help the people of Moore, Okla., rebuild their lives after last week’s devastating tornadoes.
  • While disasters bring out the worst in Mother Nature, they bring out the best in citizens across the globe, millions of whom head to their phones, computers and checkbooks to donate when tragedies strike. In the United States, more devastating weather is likely. The Atlantic hurricane season doesn’t even officially start until June 1, and runs through November 30. To help people make informed choices about where to donate funds after a disaster, both generally and for the people of Oklahoma, Charity Navigator, a non-profit charity evaluator, offers general giving tips as well as some specific advice for people looking to help those affected in Oklahoma
Ad Council Public Service Announcement

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.