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Medical Airlift Service Compromised by Lack of Liability Protection

A relief service that enlists thousands of pilots to transport patients, doctors and supplies during the nation's medical emergencies is being compromised by lack of liability protection from the government, according to members of Congress.

Mercy Medical Airlift received a nearly $1 million government grant after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to create a special unit to help with national disasters. The head of Mercy says Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has failed to set up a workable system for volunteer pilots to join disaster response.

Congress also has not passed legislation that would protect volunteer pilots from frivolous, costly lawsuits, according to Ed Boyer, Mercy's founder.

Without the protection, some pilots may stop volunteering and some relief groups may be reluctant to use pilots' services during a disaster, Boyer said.

The House of Representatives passed protective legislation in previous sessions of Congress, but safeguards weren't put in place because the Senate didn't act.

"It is no longer worth it for well-meaning people to be good Samaritans in today's legal climate," says Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Va., who is pushing liability-protection legislation in the House. "Many volunteer pilots are hanging up their flight suits at a time when people need their help more than ever."

Other congressional members say they are worried that the problems Mercy faces may have a chilling effect on other services offering emergency aid.

"These pilots and charitable organizations provide invaluable service," says Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. He introduced a bill last month in the Senate under which pilots would still carry insurance but would not be subject to lawsuits that could put them "at risk of losing their personal investments, home, business and other assets, potentially bringing them to financial ruin" for doing good deeds.

Boyer says the charitable group also is frustrated by its inability to get FEMA to include it in disaster planning efforts.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre says the agency is aware of the program and will "continue working with (Mercy) on further defining their disaster-related role."

McIntyre says it is rare that national disasters are so severe that state and local governments need help with medical transportation.

"Use of a donated service is a choice and not a mandate" in disasters, he says.

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