Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Home Medical Equipment Providers Overcome Major Storms to Help Patients

Home medical equipment suppliers have a long track record of making sure their patients get the products and services they need during natural disasters.  The recent catastrophic floods stemming from October’s Hurricane Matthew hitting the Carolinas, along with stories from the August severe flooding in Louisiana, provide compelling examples of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by companies to serve their communities in extremely challenging conditions.

This remarkable effort outlined below is the first installment of examples of home medical equipment companies providing personal and committed care to individuals with significant healthcare needs – including seniors, and people with disabilities or chronic conditions.  While HME companies devote extra resources to making sure their patients are cared for in disaster situations, they do not receive extra compensation from Medicare for providing emergency services.

Liberty Medical Overcomes Loss of Power and Phones, as well as Severe Travel Challenges to Serve Patients

Liberty Medical is headquartered in Whiteville, NC, with nine other locations in North and South Carolina.

Beginning October 3rd we began calling patients to assure they had proper back up for the equipment they had with us. For oxygen patients if they had used their back up tanks to any degree, we switched them out to assure in most cases at least two days. We also called other patients to remind them to charge any equipment they may have had that had battery backup. This included calling several hundred patients in the coastal areas as that was the areas that we had been receiving the warnings about at that time.  That process took us several days to complete and many man hours and the expense of additional equipment.

On Thursday, October 6th, as the storm was approaching our coast, we felt like we were prepared. At that time weather services were saying that we would get some rain and winds up to 60 MPH and that it would be downgraded by the time it reached the North Carolina coast. Our patients are throughout North and South Carolina and each area along the coastal regions would be impacted to some degree. The South Carolina direct coastal areas at that time were under a mandatory evacuation and we had patients calling to let us know they were leaving their homes; we advised them to take what they needed with them. North Carolina was not under any evacuation orders at that time. We began taking inventories of oxygen that we had in stock and ordered more from our supplier as we were running low as a result of stocking up the patients in the areas we felt were going to be impacted.
We began to get calls into our offices farther inland from patients of ours, as well as from patients of other companies seeking to get equipment that they left behind or trying to get more portable tanks while in hotels or with relatives.

On Friday, October 7th the storm began to get into our service areas with winds in some places over 60 MPH and rain. We had several offices that were in the evacuation areas to close at that time. All preparations for the storm had been completed. We felt like we were ready for what we had been told would be a category 1 or 2 storm.

We continued to monitor the storm and in most of our offices we continued to service our customers on a normal basis. The storms impact at this point was mostly high wind and heavy rain in the coastal areas.

As of Saturday the 8th the winds were picking up and the rain was continuing. It rained from Friday night until sometime Sunday afternoon. Many areas of North Carolina had received a considerable amount of rain several weeks prior to the storm which resulted in lakes, streams, swamps and creeks already being full of water.  The winds took down trees and the water started rising, power started going down, and roads began to become dangerous to travel by Sunday afternoon.  The inland counties by that time had received at least 16 inches of rain and the impact was just beginning. The coastal areas did not receive as much of an impact except where there was storm surge directly on the beaches.  As of Sunday afternoon, our phone system went down as well as the local 911 system as a result of flooding. We also lost our ability to get into our main software system as well because of a loss of power in another section of our building. We were running on generator power at that time. We later learned that the main substation for Duke Power that powered the entire town was underwater. We had our phone carrier to override our phone system and forward all calls to a single cell phone for calls.

By Monday morning the rivers and creeks started rising and several main roads were washed out from running water. Many of our employees could not get to work as detours were not posted and traffic began to back up on several of the main highways. As some employees began to get to work as best they could, we began to evaluate our work based on having no ability to make calls using our system but only with cell phones which were working only sporadically.  We could not at that time access any patient information using our software.

We put two customer service reps at our front entrance and provided them with our main incoming line cell phone and other cell phones to call patients back on without tying up that main line. We began contacting our branches to get a feel of what their circumstances were and who was open. All branches were open and had access to phones and systems. We at the home offices then got several lap-tops up and running and we were in business.

Then the calls started coming in from patients that were in shelters and needed oxygen as they left their equipment in their homes. We could get to them and provided them with oxygen. We also had several patients that came to the office as they had no phone service to get what they needed. We also had patients that at that time had been without power for two days contacting us for more backup.
Our problems had only started as more roads were being closed as a result of flooding.  By the end of the day on Monday we were not sure how our drivers could get to the inner part of the state as we were closed off by major highways on all sides of us. We could only go toward the coast at that time. All gas stations were closed, all stores were closed, and there was no UPS or mail service. I-95 was shut down for 30 miles, I-40 was detoured, and we had patients that needed help. Our drivers had to leave our warehouse not knowing if they could get where they were going or not. They seemed to always find a way to get where they needed to be and never complained – they just got the job done.
By Tuesday there were entire towns under water and residents being evacuated.  Some were our patients that we attempted to follow. We continued to provide services to our patients that we could get to.  Many times we would have to go East to eventually get to the West to go around closed roads and detours.

Our information system was completely functional on Wednesday the 12th, and we got full phone service restored the next day.

We are not aware of any of our patients having to get service from another source during this hurricane as a result of many hours of hard work and the dedication of our staff.  As of Tuesday the 18th we continued to have patients in shelters and we have employees that have lost their homes.
As a result of what we have learned in this process and what we know about the future of companies serving rural communities, we feel this type of service may not be available for the next event when it comes.  For the sake of the patients who depend on home medical equipment in good times and bad, we hope that doesn't come to pass.  Congress needs to take note of the high level of service that HME companies provide and finish the job on legislation to give some relief from deep cuts for suppliers in rural communities.

Visit the blog tomorrow to view a new story of an HME company devoting extra resources to make sure all of their patients are taken care of during Hurricane Matthew.

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