House Eyes Plan For Health Care During Hurricanes

Feb 16, 2018

During the next major storm, Florida may turn to university faculty and even students enrolled in health-care programs to help work with some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. 

Sparked by shortages in special-needs shelters during Hurricane Irma, a House panel on Thursday approved a bill that would expand the list of people who could help out in the facilities during emergencies. 

The legislation, which will be led by Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, also would require home health-care providers and nurses to develop emergency management plans for their patients. It also calls on hospitals to enter into contracts with local emergency management agencies to provide shelter for people who require more medical attention than is available at special-needs shelters. 

Many of the proposals included in the bill stem from a Jan. 16 report issued by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. 

The select committee heard more than 20 hours of testimony on a variety of issues, from shelters to evacuation routes to mitigating future storm damage. 

As Irma barreled toward the state last year, 6.8 million people evacuated their homes to flee the storm’s path. Nearly 700 shelters were opened throughout the state, housing 191,764 people. There were 113 special-needs shelters in 53 counties. Those shelters served 10,452 people with special needs and 4,490 caregivers. 

Legislators heard testimony that the shelters were inadequately staffed. To that end, the bill requires the Florida Department of Health to establish a statewide special-needs shelter registry form by October. 

Currently, the Division of Emergency Management maintains a special-needs registry, and local emergency management agencies also have their own registries.  The differing lists, plus a surge of last-minute registrations, made it difficult for local agencies to find enough people to staff the shelters. 

The Arc of Florida is one of the organizations that will work on the form with the Department of Health. In testimony before the House Health & Human Services Committee, Arc of Florida Executive Director Deborah Linton said several recommendations from her group are in the bill, including allowing flexibility for health-care professionals during mandatory curfews. 

Despite the mandate on hospitals to have agreements with local emergency-management agencies — and the possibility of facing fines for not doing so — Florida Hospital Association CEO Bruce Rueben said the proposal provides a “comprehensive approach to managing care for the special needs population during emergencies.” 

“We support efforts that improve Florida’s emergency management plans and coordination with providers,” Rueben said in a statement to The News Service of Florida. 

Not all recommendations in the bill are new, though. Some just put teeth into existing law.  For example, health care facilities are required to have comprehensive emergency-management plans. The bill would amend the existing law to make clear that they could face $500 fines if they don’t have plans and could be subject to disciplinary action for not abiding by details of the plans.                                                    

The House select committee made several recommendations that weren’t ultimately included in the bill (PCB HHS 18-02) approved on Thursday. For instance, the select committee recommended that the state provide funding so 42 domestic violence shelters could qualify for a federal grant that would allow them to buy generators. The bill didn’t include that proposal. 

The select committee also recommended that nursing homes be required to have adequate emergency power to protect residents from unsafe temperatures. The recommendation also was for additional requirements on assisted living facilities, but nothing specific was enumerated. 

The bill is silent on those issues, though Health & Human Services Chairman Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, told the News Service that his panel will consider a bill next week about the ratification of a pair of emergency generator rules for nursing homes and ALFs. Cummings said the House has concerns with the potential fiscal impact of requiring ALFs to have generators.