May 06, 2020

Senators Warren and Van Hollen Urge HHS to Fully Utilize Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic

Lawmakers request update on deployment of Commissioned Corps and call on HHS to expeditiously implement the Ready Reserve Corps program to increase testing capacity and reinforce the nation's work combating the spread of COVID-19

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC -- United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sent a letter to the Surgeon General and the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding efforts to fully utilize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers to combat the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and urging the Department to expeditiously implement the Ready Reserve Corps program in order to increase the nation's testing capacity.

The Commissioned Corps is made up of over 6,500 full-time officers who stand ready to respond to public health crises. Day to day, they advance public health and disease prevention programs in a variety of roles across the country as physicians, nurses, and engineers. They were deployed to combat the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and supported the nation's response to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Brett Giroir has indicated that half of the Corps services Indian Health Service, tribal nations throughout the country, the Bureau of Prisons, and those in detention under Immigration Customs and Enforcement. Of the remaining half, a fraction have been deployed to support COVID-19 containment efforts both domestically and abroad.

"Commissioned Corps officers have been deployed in numerous recent public health emergencies, and there is no reason why they should not be deployed to the fullest extent possible now," wrote the lawmakers. "Given that health care providers are currently pushed to their limits and that many more will likely find themselves in a similar situation in the coming days and weeks, it is imperative the Public Health Commissioned Corps be deployed to bolster our nation's response to COVID-19."

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act made it easier to deploy more members of the Corps. The CARES Act authorizes and funds the creation of a Ready Reserve Corps, a backup pool of officers that themselves can deploy when needed or can backfill the posts of regular Commissioned Corps officers that have been deployed. Once implemented, these reserves would be able to expand the scope of the Commissioned Corps. 

"As Surgeon General and Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), you are jointly responsible for the deployment of Commissioned Corps officers and for standing up the new Ready Reserve Corps," the lawmakers wrote. "As such, we respectfully request an update on the Department's efforts to do so as well as the Department's efforts to create the Ready Reserve Corps."

The lawmakers have requested responses to their questions no later than May 20, 2020.

Senator Warren called for boosting the number of medical workers able to perform diagnostic tests--including by tasking the Commissioned Corps with hiring and training temporary workers who can receive on-the-job training to complete tasks that don't require medical degrees--in her plan for Rapidly Increasing Our Coronavirus Testing Capacity, released in March.