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When Disaster Strikes - Healthcare During the Hurricane

Posted on Nov 04, 2012 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: Healthcare, hurricane sandy, us healthcare

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast late last month, it left stunning devastation in its wake: Fire, flooding and explosions, severe property damage, and all this on top of everyday hassles such cancelled flights and the nearly week-long shut-down of public transportation. During a natural disaster like Sandy, area residents of course face a number of risks not only to their property but also to their own health. To start, because a storm can affect public facilities such as chemical plants or sanitation works, there may be hazardous waste or a lack of access to clean drinking water. Flooding and debris can cause bodily harm, but also prevent the injured from seeking medical attention. In fact, simply being isolated during a storm can greatly harm the health of citizens trapped without sufficient food and water. What's more, those citizens who are already ill or medically dependent will often face an even greater challenge during a natural disaster.

Seniors who are dependent on prescription drugs or in need of frequent dialysis, for example, will need to take extra steps during a storm to receive the medical treatments they depend on. Likewise, seniors living in a skilled nursing home must contend with a greater risk than most when forced to evacuate, and of course citizens young and old who depend on diabetic injections or medical equipment such as an oxygen machine will require additional assistance and care when a storm strikes. Luckily, for those most in need as well as those in perfect health, the medical response to healthcare needs during Hurricane Sandy was largely determined to be a success. The U.S. Office of Health and Human Services (HHS) took many steps to insure a good level of care for the public, beginning with the immediate deployment of Fist Action Response Teams through the Public Health Service (PHS). Within three hours of the storm striking, this rapid-deployment branch of the PHS was headed to New York and New Jersey. These teams, as well as other HHS personnel who arrived later on, included nurses, doctors and pharmacists from across the country.

The PHS was also careful to deploy professionals and volunteers experienced in the area of mental healthcare, to help combat some of the trauma of a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Sandy. Those Public Health Service responders has a great impact on stymieing what medical issues they could following the hurricane. Teams set up shelters in local colleges and gyms, providing first aid and further medical assistance to those people unable to get to a hospital due to flooding, debris or personal injury. For people with greater healthcare needs, PHS members assisted them in moving to a hospital as soon as possible. At local shelters, PHS provided beds, generators, and the equipment necessary to create a hospital-like facility. PHS medical volunteers were absolutely essential in this situation, providing skilled nursing and all kinds of assistance to those in need of emergency as well as routine medical treatment.

As of November 13th, at least 1,000 HHS member still remain active, showing an admirable commitment on behalf of the department to following up on healthcare needs. Besides the work of personnel, public health organizations assisted disaster victims through key waivers in healthcare policy. When the Secretary of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on the 31st of October, she also signed off on a series of agreements to temporarily change the law. These policy changes were authorized to assure that the best healthcare possible reach those affected by the storm. For example, the law states that a doctor in New York will normally have to hold a New York medical license in order to practice in that state. During Hurricane Sandy, however, that policy was waived to assure that volunteer medics from out-of-state had free range to help patients. Similarly, requirements regarding the condition and pre-approval of a medical care facility were waived to ensure that appropriate treatment could legally be given in temporary shelters.

Changes in healthcare policy at a national level had especially important effects for Sandy victims enrolled in public insurance programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved important blanket policy waivers affecting New York and New Jersey - seniors no longer had to wait a required three days in a hospital before receiving coverage for a move to a skilled nursing facility, bed increases in hospitals were authorized without the need for a formal request, and emergency, unscheduled dialysis was deemed payable under a patient's prospective insurance coverage. Many more waivers were instituted as well, and these policy alterations, along with acts such as the Emergency Prescription Assistance Program also activated by the HHS, insured that those on public health plans or with no insurance at all could still access the necessary healthcare.

It is also worthwhile to note also the role that the internet played in protecting the health and safety of citizens during the aftermath of Sandy, as well as before the storm had hit. Well-run and informative pages from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance and other public health organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency kept East Coast residents up-to-date on the progress of the storm, and offered advice on what items to stockpile and how to avoid dangers such as electrical injury and unclean drinking water. All in all, thanks to quick response on the ground as well as key policy decisions, public health officials and medical volunteers had a big impact on limiting the damages of Hurricane Sandy. The destruction and loss of life which did occur is a sad and unfortunate truth of how crushing a natural disaster can be. Hopefully, in the future, U.S. healthcare during such perilous natural events will continue this trend of fast response and smart policy-making, and overall safety will improve even more.

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