Hurricane-relief effort aims to get practices back online ASAP

Andis Robeznieks
Senior Staff Writer
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Around $907,000 has already been raised for the Texas Medical Association (TMA) Disaster Relief Program to help physicians reestablish practices destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Harvey and the record flooding it produced. Included in that total is $150,000 that the AMA has pledged to the association, the largest donation to date.

“It’s very important to get [physician practices] up and running as quickly as possible to help with the issues we’ll be facing in the aftermath,” TMA President Carlos J. Cardenas, MD, said. “The thrust of our efforts will be to support our physicians and communities in the aftermath in any way we can.”

To that end, the AMA Foundation has created the Physician's Disaster Recovery Fund to directly support two local charities in support of their physician disaster-relief programs. The foundation first contacted its donor base soliciting contributions Sept. 6, and sent another email Sept. 14.

The entirety of a donor’s recovery fund gift will go directly to support physicians and their ability to provide care for those who need it most. Gifts can be designated to the Foundation for Healthy Floridians—affiliated with the Florida Medical Association—or to the Texas Medical Association Foundation, or “wherever it is needed most” among the two. Donate now.

To ensure that donations are spent effectively, TMA members have been surveyed to find out what their practices’ specific needs are and what issues they are seeing among their patients, said Dr. Cardenas, a gastroenterologist in South Texas.

Some areas, such as Beaumont, are without potable water while stagnant water in Houston and surrounding Harris County communities threaten to spawn public health concerns from infectious and mosquito-borne diseases.

These problems will be exacerbated by the loss of basic necessities such as housing.

“Large populations have been completely displaced,” Cardenas said. “We’re going to continue to need volunteers for the foreseeable future until the state and community reach some sort of normalcy.”

States seek medical volunteers

The Texas Medical Board has suspended certain licensing requirements to allow expedited temporary permits to physicians seeking to assist in the emergency response. Information on how to assist with Louisiana’s response to Harvey has been posted by the state health department.

“What’s been very heartening has been the outpouring of support from our colleagues across the country,” Dr. Cardenas said.

Further to the east, the Florida Department of Health is also looking for physicians, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and other health professionals to help in the response to Hurricane Irma. The department has posted a SurveyMonkey form for health professionals interested in volunteering to complete.

Mitzi Rubin, MD, a family medicine physician in Marietta, Georgia, is organizing a relief effort for the U.S. Virgin Islands, where her father practices and there is a particular need for antibiotics, Tetanus vaccines, and blood-pressure and diabetes medications.

Federal efforts have included deploying medical personnel from the Department of Health and Human Services to the U.S. Virgin Islands who helped move dialysis patients to Puerto Rico. Also, about 500 HHS medical professionals were sent to Orlando, Florida, including physicians and nurses with National Disaster Medical System teams from Alabama, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also exempted from quality-reporting and value-based purchasing programs hospitals and other medical institutions such as skilled nursing facilities and inpatient psychiatric care facilities in areas of Texas and Louisiana that were hit by Hurricane Harvey.

Information on eligibility for hardship exemptions to the Medicare Merit-based Incentive Payment System and advice on how to apply ICD-10 codes for hurricane-related patient encounters can be found on the TMA website. The TMA site has an index page listing disaster-related resources.

A. Tom Garcia, MD, a Houston cardiologist, credits his Boy Scout preparedness training with getting him in the habit of checking his disaster-response kit at the start of hurricane season each August. He makes sure it’s stocked with working batteries, fresh water and other necessary supplies.

“We’ve been through so many hurricanes that, when they say, ‘Evacuate,’ 99 percent of folks evacuate and just drive west,” he said.

Dr. Garcia, however, stayed behind. After making sure his family was safe, he spent most of the storm at the West Houston Medical Center, which is literally across the street from his home.

“The rain was endless. It was like sheets of water coming down,” Dr. Garcia said. “And then there were tornadoes. It was just a monster.”

“It just wouldn’t stop”

Then word came that one of the dams protecting the city might burst, so 11 intensive-care patients were moved via helicopter and critical equipment was moved from the first floor to the second.

“Everybody worked as hard as we could—and then nothing happened,” Dr. Garcia said. “The dam held.”

But reservoirs were full and the decision was made to release some of the water anyway, Dr. Garcia said, turning a small, nearby creek into a “full, raging river.”

“It just wouldn’t stop,” Dr. Garcia said. “It was just unbelievable.”

There were about 200 patients in the hospital during the hurricane and roughly 30 physicians, Dr. Garcia estimated. The only cardiologist on duty, Dr. Garcia said he stayed at the hospital for five consecutive days before going home.

“I slept for 18 hours straight,” he said. “I felt like an intern.”

When Hurricane Ike hit the area in the 2008, Dr. Garcia said many physicians lost their offices. During Hurricane Harvey, however, he said they lost their homes. Cars and other property are insured and can be replaced, Dr. Garcia said, but what hurts is losing irreplaceable items like photographs, diaries and family Bibles.

“We will overcome this,” said Dr. Garcia, who had a message for the AMA’s leadership.

“We really appreciate the AMA coming forward and asking if there was anything they could do. Tell Dr. Madara I said, ‘Thank you.’”

Dr. Cardenas said the Texas physicians who were not affected by the storm stand by to help those that were and that includes those impacted by Hurricane Irma as well.

“By the grace of God, it didn’t hit us, but it hit our neighbors and we’re here to help our neighbors,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

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