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Feds Get Teeth To Make Sure Health Care Ready For Disasters

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Albert Harris, Orange County
The Florida Channel
More than 1,200 volunteer victims drilled for a possible dirty bomb in Orange County earlier this year. Training drills like this one will be a requirement under a new federal rule.

Next week, the federal government will be able to fine – and possibly shut down – nearly all health care facilities that aren’t ready for a disaster.

The rules are years in the making. They’re designed to get health care organizations ready for the next disaster, from hurricanes to mass shootings.

But some are raising the alarm that health care organizations aren’t ready.

Eric Alberts is in charge of emergency preparedness at Orlando Regional Medical Center, which got 44 patients from the Pulse nightclub shooting. He supports the federal rule requiring health care organizations have a plan. He’s surprised at how many hospitals and clinics across the country don’t have one.

“Some of the latest things I’ve heard is CMS rule, what CMS rule? I shake my head in fear and think what about the community here? They’re expecting you to be able to care for them when something bad like this happens like Vegas or here with Pulse.”

The new Emergency Preparedness Rule means health care facilities have to do a risk assessment for all hazards: cyber attacks to hurricanes to active shooters.  They need an emergency plan for what to do, and how to communicate during a crisis.

And the plan can’t just be ink on paper.  They have to do training and drilling every year.

Alberts says if the rule had been in place before the Pulse nightclub shooting.

“I think it would have helped, it definitely would not have hurt. And when you look at the other health care organizations like nursing homes that unnecessarily had people die in their facilities during storms and hurricanes, this rule really speaks to that and says you need to wake up and have a plan.”

And when you look at just the last year – the nursing home deaths in south Florida, flooding from Hurricane Harvey, the mass shootings in Texas and Las Vegas – Alberts predicts regulators are going to come down hard on organizations that aren’t meeting the new rules.

“I think there’s gonna be some hefty fines, and that’s when hospitals will wake up and go on panic mode.”

But the rules don’t just apply to hospitals and nursing homes. 17 different kinds of health care organizations are covered in this rule, from dialysis centers and psychiatric treatment facilities to home health agencies and hospice programs.

Melissa Harvey works for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the division of national healthcare preparedness.

She says one reason the rule applies to so many different parts of the health care sector is because they were preparing in a vacuum.

“A good example of this was during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.”

The swine flu pandemic was particularly nasty, causing more than 270-thousand hospitalizations and 12-thousand deaths in the U.S.

“One hospital would tell us we had no ICU beds left and one ventilator and they don’t know what they’re gonna do if they get two patients who need that ventilator, how are they gonna make that call. And we’d go to a different hospital owned by a different corporate partners just a few blocks away to find they had 30 ICU beds and plenty of ventilators. FINISH BITE”

So now, the new emergency preparedness plans in Florida will be reviewed by health care coalitions – groups with health departments and emergency planners and multiple health care groups sitting at the same table.

And many of these health care organizations weren’t required to have emergency plans before this – meaning they’re starting from scratch.

“This is truly baseline preparedness.”

Ready or not, the rules go into effect next week.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.