HME industry awaits word from Gulf Coast providers

Sunday, September 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Katrina's being called the worst natural disaster to ever hit the United States, and members of the HME industry feel helpless as they await word on the fate of peers in the devastated Gulf Coast region.

"We're hearing very little back," said Liz Moran, executive vice president of Medical Equipment Suppliers Association, whose organization includes 31 members in Louisiana. "My sense is that so many are without power and therefore without communication."

Moran sent an e-mail to Louisiana members asking how the association could help them.

"We have not heard back from any of them," she said. "We're pretty much powerless to do anything."

"This is just totally unprecedented," said Michael Hamilton, executive director of the Alabama Durable Medical Equipment Association. "It's the first time I remember phone service just dead."

With storm victims most likely scrambling for basic necessities, Hamilton admits that checking in with the association is not a high priority for affected members.

Anthony Whitehead, of Glass Seating & Mobility in Oxford, Miss., is located a few hundred miles away from the storm and considers himself lucky.

"There's nothing, I mean nothing there but debris," said Whitehead, who was without power and water for several days. On Wednesday, he was able to access his email for the first time in days and put out feelers for information and suggestions on how to help. Like everyone else, his thoughts were with fellow providers in the area.

"I know some of the guys down there," he said. "(One guy), he's just three or four blocks off the Mississippi River. I hope he's not there."

With nearly 80% of New Orleans under water, and millions in the region without power and shelter, it's impossible to predict what will happen to the HME industry in the area.

"I can't imagine what's going to happen when you got all that mess to clean up," said Hamilton. "You can't operate in the area, it's uninhabitable. The customer base won't be able to come back for months or years."

But some are trying to gain a sense of normalcy. Michael Yant, president of Medical Solutions in Jackson, Miss., made it past downed power lines and trees to reach his office on Thursday and check his voice mail. He had power, unlike 80% of the city, which was hit by 120 mph winds.

"Up till Wednesday, no phone calls, just text messages. The cell towers have helped," he said of communications in the area. "We're dry, no rain or floods."

Yant's territory covers the area from central Mississippi to the coast, supplying Medicare patients with feeding, oxygen, diabetic supplies and ambulatory aids.

"We're overloaded, people that live here need relief," said Yant. "There's assisted living facilities, shelters without power. I have hospital beds, wheelchairs, nebulizers I could offer but no way to get it to them. And my patients may need it. I don't know what to do."