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The US Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps was established in 1889 to help protect US citizens from infectious diseases through immunization and quarantine. As the nation's public health needs grew, so did the corps.
Today, the USPHS Commissioned Corps consists of more than 6000 full-time, highly skilled professionals from a number of health care fields. All pharmacists in the Corps are uniformed officers, and they serve throughout the US Department of Health and Human Services and in other federal agencies.
Rear Admiral Scott F. Giberson, assistant surgeon general and chief pharmacy officer, USPHS Commissioned Corps, says, “PHS Pharmacy allows for unparalleled diversity and opportunity. Our pharmacists become an integral part of a unique career path that can involve advanced pharmacy practice, health policy development, emergency and humanitarian response, public health leadership, global health, and much more.”
According to the USPHS Commissioned Corps Web site, the mission of the corps is to provide for the health and safety of the nation through “rapid and effective response to public health needs, leadership and excellence in public health practices, and advancement of public health science.”
Captain Carmen Clelland, PharmD, MPA, director of the Health Professions Support Branch of the Indian Health Service, says that the majority of career opportunities in the corps are focused on patient care and counseling. Captain Clelland explains, “There are many opportunities for recent graduates with the corps. Primary care, ambulatory care, and institutional practice opportunities include working with the Indian Health Service, Division of Immigration Health Services, and US Coast Guard. Many initiatives of these 3 organizations allow pharmacists to utilize their clinical skills recently learned in pharmacy school.”
For recent graduates who are interested in policymaking, academia, or administration, other agencies can provide important employment opportunities. The FDA, for example, has many regulatory positions for which pharmacists provide their expertise and knowledge. Other agencies, such as the Health Care Financing Administration, Health Resource and Services Administration, National Institutes of Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, utilize more senior Corps pharmacists.
To become a member of the Commissioned Corps, pharmacy graduates must be citizens of the United States, be aged 44 years or younger, and pass a physical examination.
Pharmacy graduates also need to hold a Bachelor of Science or PharmD degree from a program accredited by the American Council on Pharmaceutical Education. Corps candidates need a current, valid, and unrestricted pharmacy license for one of the 50 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, or Guam. Recent pharmacy graduates who do not yet have a valid license may still apply to the corps, but will be appointed for a limited tour of duty until licensure is complete.
Once accepted into the Commissioned Corps, the required length of service is 2 years with the same agency. After that term, corps pharmacists have the opportunity to apply for positions at different agencies.
The benefits of a career with the Commissioned Corps are generous. New pharmacists who enroll in the corps receive a host of benefits, including competitive starting pay, free medical and dental care for the pharmacist and low-cost medical care for family members, tax-free housing and meal allowances, 30 days paid vacation, and paid sick and maternity leaves.
For newly commissioned pharmacists, the Commissioned Corps offers a $30,000 accession bonus for signing a 4-year active-duty agreement. Pharmacists serving in the corps may also be eligible for an annual $15,000 retention bonus.
In recognition of the financial burden a pharmacy student accepts by going through professional schooling, the USPHS, in coordination with other federal agencies, also offers loan repayment and other educational and family support programs for those who qualify.
Captain Clelland notes that there are nonmonetary benefits to a career in the corps as well. Flexibility and career growth are 2 big benefits to a career in the corps—in his 20-year career with the IHS, Captain Clelland has served in both rural and urban settings, and has had the opportunity to take positions in patient care, administration, and policymaking.
Although the Commissioned Corps maintains a low profile in the national consciousness, it provides valuable services to benefit public health in our country and around the world. Rear Admiral Giberson says, “We [in the Commissioned Corps] desire professionals and pharmacists that want to serve a mission, become part of something special, and that want to make a difference in the lives of people.”
FOR STUDENTS ONLY
The Commissioned Corps also has programs for current students. Students who have completed at least 1 year of study in a master’s or doctoral program or 2 years in a professionally accredited bachelor’s program may qualify for the Junior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (JRCOSTEP). JRCOSTEP participants work in the same types of positions as commissioned officers, and enjoy some of the same benefits. Assignments in JRCOSTEP last from 31 to 120 days, and are scheduled during school breaks and the summer months. Students are paid for their time and are not obligated to join the corps upon graduation.
A similar program, the Senior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (SRCOSTEP), was created for full-time students entering their last year of professional training in an accredited program. SRCOSTEP participants receive financial assistance to complete school, and agree to serve in the corps after graduation for twice the amount of the time for which they received assistance. Students interested in the JRCOSTEP and SRCOSTEP programs can check their eligibility at https://dcpweb.psc.gov/ rab/scripts/app_main_menu.htm.
JOINING THE CORPS
Pharmacy students who are interested in careers with the USPHS Commissioned Corps should call 800-279-1605 for more information. To apply for a position online, visit www.usphs.gov/applynow/.