The new Coast Guard Authorization Act brings mariners one step closer to relief from the often frustrating medical review process required to get credentials.

A provision (Section 309, Subsection 7509) setting up “medical certification by trusted agents” is similar to a Designated Medical Examiner (DME) proposal under discussion for several years. Designed to speed the process and allow for hands-on medical reviews, the law requires the Coast Guard to certify local doctors to determine mariners’ fitness. A final rule implementing the new system would have to be issued within five years of the law’s enactment.

Mariners still would have a choice of using the designated examiner or the current system – their personal doctor whose report is reviewed by the Coast Guard. An examiner program would be similar to those run by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee (MEDMAC) formed several years ago to help simplify and clarify the medical review system has endorsed a DME program. The American Waterways Operators (AWO) and the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) favor the examiners as an option.

At its March meeting, the committee is scheduled to make recommendations on DME training. It’s also is working on a revision of the complicated Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08 which lays out medical and physical evaluation guidelines.

“As with other laws, the Coast Guard will work to meet the requirements laid out by Congress,” a Coast Guard spokesman said. While it’s premature to gauge the impact, “the new process will reduce the number of mariners that will need to receive medical evaluations from the Coast Guard.”

The agency “will complete the regulation drafting process within the timeframe Congress has mandated,” the spokesman said.

All sides of the issue say their goals are the same – safety and keeping people working. MEDMAC members say they’ve made progress especially in being more adaptable to conditions that might have barred mariners in the past. As one mariner put it in commenting on the examiner proposal two years ago, the Coast Guard wants "a 20-year-old body with 20 years experience."

The certified examiner system, mariners say, would be less onerous and provide uniformity and efficiency so the doctors evaluating them would be part of the same system that issues the credentials. They could have just one person and not a number of others several states away determine their fitness.

“The bottom line is we’re here as part of the credentialing program to make sure we do what’s best for the mariner but equally we have to safeguard the marine transportation system,” Capt. Jeff Novotny, the National Maritime Center’s commanding officer earlier told WorkBoat. “We’re not in the business of preventing people from getting credentials.”

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.