Expansion plan for hurricane evacuees

With hurricane season in full swing, the state hired a Wisconsin-based emergency response company to help provide care for chronically ill storm evacuees with special medical needs.

“After (hurricanes) Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, we recognized we did not have all the appropriate personnel available to us,” state Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert said. “If the event goes on for a prolonged period of time, we didn’t have the staff to really staff those shelters appropriately.”

Response Systems Inc., of Oconomowoc, Wis., got the contract, which runs from Feb. 1, 2013, to Jan. 31, 2016. The state will pay the firm $871,000 for emergency preparedness and readiness training. The company gets more money for providing medical teams in the event of a disaster.

During major hurricanes, hundreds of south Louisiana residents with acute, major health conditions and who are in harm’s way are evacuated to specialized shelters. LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge is turned from a sporting and special event facility to a 24-hour-a-day medical outpost. The state’s Megashelter in Alexandria is also opened. And, if needed, shelters in Shreveport and Monroe.

The shelters, for instance, can handle oxygen-dependent patients, those on feeding equipment and in need of mechanical suctioning devices.

In the past, LSU has provided the physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists, state public health nurses along with medical personnel from the private sector who have staffed what are called “medical special needs shelters.”

The state public health nurses are getting fewer in number with state cutbacks.

While LSU’s medical operations have provided staffing through past hurricanes, there has been no formal agreement, Kliebert said. With the hospital privatization changes that have occurred recently, DHH wants to know what specifically it can expect from LSU, she said.

LSU hospital nurses, respiratory therapists and other medical employees had been pressed into service. With privatization, the automatic pool is not readily available.

Kliebert said meetings are ongoing with LSU about use of its doctors and other medical personnel in the future. “We have no trepidation that LSU will respond along with private partners,” Kliebert said. State health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said it has been nice to have the level of support from LSU that has been provided. “I’m not going to downplay it,” Guidry said. “It’s a new day. Business is different ... We have to get a little more creative.”

Leslie Capo, a spokeswoman with LSU Health Sciences Center-New Orleans, or LSUHSC, said a meeting is scheduled within the next two weeks between the state and LSU. She noted that LSUHSC physicians and residents have traditionally helped care for evacuees.

Hurricane response is not a part of the LSU hospital privatization deals.

Catherine Harrell, communications executive with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, said the regions’ hospitals and medical community are prepared to respond to a community disaster.

Guidry, who has overseen shelter operations. said more and more people with acute health care needs are showing up to escape storms. “With a large population of baby boomers, a lot more people are at home with chronic illnesses,” Guidry said. The storm knocks out the electricity that powers their medical equipment.

As the number of storm events have grown more frequent since 2005 and more patients have evacuated, Guidry said, “It’s harder and harder to get medical professionals from Louisiana because of all the work.”

The Megashelter in Alexandria, has a capacity of around 600. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge can accommodate around 300 people, depending on the needs of patients who arrive, according to DHH.

Other shelters farther north provide support for hundreds of others.

The contract calls for the Response Systems Inc. to provide physicians, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, licensed social workers, as well as clerical and administrative staff.

The company would be called out for a minimum five-day deployment at a cost of $290,714. Travel and meals not provided by the shelter would be reimbursed at state rates.

The company’s website notes that it is “actively recruiting EMS individuals and teams to assist with on-demand mass evacuation operations on the U.S. Gulf Coast.” That is the way the company describes its Louisiana contract.

According to the website, Response Systems will provide “strike teams” to support state disaster response operations. “Response Systems may provide staffing in excess of 150 licensed personnel to assure management, operational efficiency and recovery for the many response functions delivered in the event of a mass medical surge or evacuation.”

The company must have teams in place within 48 hours of call-up.

“They have pools of nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists from other states for the most part,” Guidry said. “They would have to fly in. If they can’t get on a plane, they would charter a plane to get them here.”