Responder bill protects volunteers

WESTFIELD – A new Public Health Responder Bill aims to provide liability protection for volunteers acting under the direction of state or local public health authorities.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Moore and Rep. Denise Garlick, addresses something that is a big concern for volunteer organizations such as the Medical Reserve Corps. (MRC).
Ed Mello, director of the Greater Westfield & Western Hampden County Medical Reserve Corps. Inc. (MRC) and Greater Westfield Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT), said both groups are run and staffed 100 percent by volunters, and they need more.
Because under current laws a volunteer health responder could be liable in certain situations, some people are hesitant to volunteer.
“The lack of liability coverage has been a great deterrence to our getting the numbers of qualified volunteers necessary to meet the needs during times of disasters or public health emergencies,” said Mello. “We have been trying all over the country to get liability coverage for our volunteers with poor success. Some areas provide coverage through town or city coverage by making the volunteers ‘non-paid employees’ of the town, etc. Not all town and cities are willing to do this.”
According to the bill, local MRCs have been instrumental in recruiting, credentialing, training, and ensuring proper oversight of volunteer personnel who are ready to answer the call and assist their communities in time of need. However, volunteer recruitment and retention efforts have been hampered by the fact that volunteers remain liable in some circumstances when called to service, creating gaps in response capacity.
Mello said there has been an effort to create legislation to close those gaps.
“Here in Massachusetts, we have lobbied for several years to get a bill that would cover our volunteers during times of practice drills and actual activation for disasters and health crises,” he said. “These efforts have not been successful as of yet. We are hoping that the efforts of (the responder bill) will get the backing of the people and get them to notify their senators and representatives requesting that they support these actions and move this forward to actual volunteer coverage for our members.”
Mello said the volunteers work hard to help the community during times of need.
“They should not have to risk their profession or hard earned income by not having liability insurance to protect them from people who wish to sue them for their efforts,” said Mello. “I am sure that once this liability issue is resolved, we will get more volunteers to help the community.”
State Rep. Donald Humason agreed.
“We’re encouraging people to join organizations and help out, but if they’re going to be a responder and there’s a chance they’ll get sued, people are not going to help,” Humason said.

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