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Pentagon plans draft medics

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Posted on Fri, Mar. 21, 2003

Pentagon plans draft of medics
Selective Service wants doctors, nurses ready in event of worst-case crisis
Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is firming up a plan to draft thousands of doctors, nurses and other health-care specialists in the event of a worst-case crisis.

The Selective Service System is dusting off its plan for a "health care personnel delivery system," which has been on the shelf since Congress authorized it in 1987 to cope with military casualties from a large-scale biological or chemical attack.

At the Pentagon's direction, the agency also is examining whether that plan for a "special skills" draft could be adapted to address critical shortages that might arise for military linguists, computer experts or engineers.

"We're going to elevate that kind of draft to be a priority," Lewis Brodsky, acting director of Selective Service, says.

The plan would be needed if an attack on U.S. troops overwhelmed the capabilities of the military to care for its wounded.

The president would issue a proclamation ordering an estimated 3.5 million health-care workers to register for a draft within 13 days. Congress would quickly enact legislation authorizing the draft for health-care workers 20 to 44. For the first time, a draft would include women.

The Pentagon would tell Selective Service how many people it needed in each of 62 specialties. A separate draft lottery would be held for each of those needs.

For example, if 300 orthopedic surgeons were required, Selective Service would choose birthdays in a random lottery and order those dates from 1 to 365. Notices would go out to the surgeons, starting with the first birthday drawn, until 300 had been called.

The Pentagon expects that within several months of the crisis, Selective Service could deliver surgeons, nurses, dentists, X-ray technicians, etc. -- up to an estimated 80,000 in all -- through the Military Entrance Processing Command.

The plan isn't very well-known within the medical community.

"If you were to ask 10 doctors, maybe one might have heard something about it," said Dr. Marybeth McCall, chief medical officer at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y., and an Air Force veteran.

McCall said she was confident that health professionals would volunteer their services in the event of a large-scale emergency, much as they did during Operation Desert Storm and the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I would say it would be ill-advised to force a draft," she said. "Health-care personnel commit to a life of service. We're going to take care of patients wherever they happen to be."

Congress ordered up the plan in the late 1980s, thinking more about Cold War dangers than about an Iraqi dictator who might unleash weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops. Pentagon officials say they see no need for a conventional draft of young men to be soldiers.

Brodsky said the plan has moved to the front burner because of recent signals from the Pentagon and conversations with military leaders.

Selective Service maintains 2,000 active draft boards around the country that would handle appeals for exemptions, deferments and postponements.

Members of those draft boards can expect to be trained in the near future on a special "essentiality" exemption that health-care workers might seek, Flahavan said. A doctor might be able to show, for example, that he or she is essential to a community and should not be drafted.

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