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Lack of reporting protection for PHS workers weakens national health

Imagine a situation where those optimally placed to signal the alarm on medical malpractice, potentially dangerous drugs and medical devices, flaws in the regulatory approval system, medical fraud and related matters were unable to report them without risking personal reprisals.

That is precisely the case for the members of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps, described as "an elite team of more than 6,500 full-time, well-trained, highly qualified public health professionals."

The members work in civilian departments of federal agencies, their aim being to promote the nation's health. What renders them singular, though, is that they are part of the uniformed service, although not formally members of the armed services.

As such, they can seem to appear neither civilian nor military, which means that, when it comes to reporting problems, they have been described as residing "in a whistleblower black hole."

That means this: When a PHS employee seeks to inform the government of fraud or looming medical error, he or she lacks both the federal whistleblowing safeguards accorded federal civilians and the protections available to military members.

It is a loophole that "doesn't make any sense" and that "undermines public health and safety," says Carolyn Lerner, the federal government's Special Counsel.

More pointedly, says Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a strong advocate for protecting the rights of persons who provide Congress and other governmental bodies with potentially important information through whistleblowing, it means that whistleblowers are "often treated like skunks at a picnic."

Lerner, Grassley and others are proactively seeking legal change that better protects those coming forward to report problems related to national health care.

Source: Washington Post, "For Public Health Service officers, no protection for whistleblowing," Joe Davidson, March 13, 2012

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