SPECIAL REPORT: House questions medical self-certification, GAO study

| 7/25/2008

Friday, July 25, 2008 – Several members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee expressed outrage Thursday at the lax standards used by many states to verify the health of commercial drivers.

Twenty-five states allow for drivers to vouch personally for their health by marking a box on a form, and don’t require CDL applicants to show a medical certificate. In addition, federal transportation officials haven’t addressed issues such as medical examiners being required to become part of a national registry.

“We need action,” said Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN.

Thursday’s committee hearing came after a week’s worth of headlines about a Government Accountability Office report that attempted to vaguely link CDL holders who have medical conditions to crashes. The GAO study, however, repeatedly stated it could not blame truck drivers for causing crashes or fatalities, and that it could not state that drivers with medical disabilities wouldn’t be qualified to drive commercial vehicles.

Instead, the report relied on 15 anecdotal cases to represent the status of medically fit truck drivers among an estimated 6 million CDL holders nationwide. The GAO took the rare step of not issuing any recommendations beyond further study of the issue.

Several representatives brought up the GAO report, including Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-TN.

“I am concerned that this report will be seen by some to imply a broader problem in the CDL population,” Duncan said. “In fact, the report makes it clear that these 15 cases are not representative of the commercial driver population or individuals receiving medical disability benefits.”

Rep. Howard Coble, D-NC, said he doesn’t condone anyone fraudulently obtaining a CDL, but said many have unfairly assumed that all drivers with medical disabilities are unfit for driving.

“Many of us have said repeatedly, that safety should remain our priority,” Coble said. “That said, I’m thinking it’s equally important to acknowledge folks with medical conditions who have obtained a CDL by following the letter of the law. It is my belief that the determination of a person’s medical fitness and ability to obtain a CDL should be made on a case-by-case basis.”

A report done by T&I Committee staff recommended the elimination of medical form templates from the FMCSA Web site and suggested strictly controlling access to physical certificates to discourage forgeries of medical examiners’ signatures. The staff report also suggested FMCSA expedite its rulemaking to establish a National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners, and set up a central repository for medical exam reports.

Oberstar said he was disappointed that FMCSA Administrator John Hill didn’t accept the committee’s invitation to testify.

“It’s curious that the administrator of FMCSA is available and prepared to answer questions from a reporter earlier this week, but not from the committee,” Oberstar said during the Thursday hearing.

Instead, FMCSA Chief Safety Officer Rose McMurray answered many heated questions from committee members. Several committee members mentioned ways FMCSA could propose a federal ban on medical self-certifications.

FMCSA is moving forward with several initiatives, McMurray said.

“This is a very big rule, and states are involved on this issue,” McMurray said. “We have to make sure we do this right, and it takes some time for us to ensure that there are not unintended consequences to what we are developing.”

OOIDA leaders have said that they believe the medical certification process has holes, but they urge caution about mandating changes that could be unaffordable to small businesses or prevent able drivers from working.

Adding layers of red tape could damage small trucking businesses already reeling from a down economy and soaring fuel prices, said Rick Craig, OOIDA’s director of regulatory affairs.

Craig said the GAO appeared to have overstated certain claims, including the report’s focus on federal disability eligibility compared with the ability to drive a commercial vehicle.

“Just because someone is receiving full disability benefits, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a condition that would preclude them from having a CDL,” Craig told Land Line Now. “Having a bad back or a loss of limb – you can actually get waivers in some cases and still drive a truck and drive a truck quite well.”

Oberstar said the hearing would be followed up by another one to check on FMCSA’s progress. He thanked the “trucking industry for opening its doors and employing individuals with illnesses and disabilities,” before adding that FMCSA’s medical certification program “has too many defects.”

Duncan agreed.

“We have the safest trucking industry and truck drivers in the world, but we should always be trying to make things better and even safer,” Duncan said.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer