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Ten years ago, the entire country was horrified by the devastation wrought by complacency. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how interdependent our communities, our businesses and our government are– and how confusion following disaster can make the situation immeasurably worse. Valuable time was squandered identifying authority between New Orleans, Louisiana and the federal government. Lives were lost because of the inability of medical supplies and personnel to reach the most forcefully impacted areas. The aftermath of Katrina helped us realize as a nation that simply wanting to do good is not enough; all parts of our communities, especially private and public healthcare, must work and plan together year-round to be prepared for the worst and protect the most vulnerable.
In the decade since Katrina, our society has taken steps to protect its citizens. In healthcare, there was increased awareness and training on hospitals’ roles in disaster preparedness and response, and public health funding for essential capabilities was bolstered. Together, Americans grew more prepared to respond to all kinds of hazards, including devastating natural disasters, infectious disease and terrorism.
However, much of that progress has been erased over the past four years by massive cuts to the two biggest public health preparedness grants, the Hospital Preparedness Program and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness agreement, as well as by limited coordination at the state and local level between public and private sector healthcare. Loss of funding resulted in a nearly 40 percent decrease in state and local programs over the past four years and limited the ability for continued relationship-building with private healthcare. This will result in communities suffering doubly in time of crisis, during the event and while trying to receive care afterwards. The only way to ensure we are prepared to protect patients is to effectively align private and public sector health systems and funding, and make both sectors understand why preparedness is necessary for their bottom line.
The Government Accountability Office reports that at least 92 percent of the healthcare system in the U.S. is owned and operated by the private sector. This means that the only systemic way to protect patients’ continued access to care is to ensure that healthcare systems continue to operate in the event of a disaster. Slashed funding for health preparedness and a surge in the number of people with access to healthcare renders communities more vulnerable than ever before. The only way to fix this issue is to ensure that government agencies efficiently partner with and bolster private sector healthcare resources.
Recognizing the need for public health to coordinate with and support private sector healthcare may seem like prioritizing company profit when it comes to disaster response. But the goal remains to ensure that patients get the care that they need, even in the challenging and unpredictable circumstances of a disaster. And in the long run, bolstering a community’s economic base increases the likelihood that a community will rebound after an event.
It has been almost three years since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Eastern Seaboard. While some of the lessons learned from Katrina had been implemented, five New York City hospitals had to be evacuated, in part because of incomplete execution of the guidance from public health preparedness programs and lessons gained from Katrina. For example, in one hospital, backup generators had been moved out of basements susceptible to flooding, but the fuel storage for those generators had not. This illustrates the concern that slashing preparedness grants is harming health care providers’ readiness for disaster situations.
The most effective way to ensure that patients are protected and that communities can recover is to effectively partner public health with all parts of our healthcare system. And on this anniversary of one of the most devastating natural disasters to ever hit the U.S., it’s time to recognize the need to become smarter on disaster response.
Emily Lord is executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit dedicated to building community healthcare resilience before, during and after disasters. The organization was founded following Hurricane Katrina.