Hurricane Florence tests HME providers and their patients

‘Getting in touch with them is harder than it’s been with past storms,’ says one provider
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Friday, September 21, 2018

WILMINGTON, N.C. – In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence late last week, HME providers struggled to get back to business as usual and scrambled to make contact with a large population of displaced patients.

Even though the water started to recede late last week, they fear the worst isn’t over.

“There are rivers that still haven’t crested,” said Brad Heath, vice president of operations and marketing for Dunn, N.C.-based Family Medical Supply.

Carolinians are no strangers to hurricanes, but the slow-moving Florence, which made landfall in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 14, drenched the region in upward of 50 inches of rain in some areas, causing widespread flooding and power outages. Major highways and more than a thousand other roads have been closed, and 42 deaths, 31 in North Carolina and nine in South Carolina, have been reported.

Nearly a week later, Family Medical Supply still had some locations without phones or power, including its locations in the hardest-hit towns of New Bern and Wilmington, but they’re all staffed, Heath said.

“We’ve had more patients than usual evacuated,” he said. “Getting in touch with them is harder than it’s been with past storms.”

With many roads still washed out, travel is still difficult—and dangerous, say providers.

“We couldn’t go north, south or east,” said Joe Hooks, one of the owners of Whiteville, N.C.-based Liberty Medical. “You don’t know if the roads are safe. We tell our guys if you can’t do it safely, come back and we’ll make another plan.”

With phone coverage at his office off, then on, then off again, Hooks was working from his cell phone on Thursday. The No. 1 priority: checking on oxygen and home infusion patients.

“We provided medications to all our patients the Tuesday before the storm for at least a week,” he said. “We started calling these patients on Monday to find out where they are, if they are home or anywhere that we can get to. We did have to turn over a couple in areas we couldn’t get to—maybe a hospital could provide some meds to them until we can get back to them.”

Apria Healthcare has been operating its distribution centers around the clock to get enough backup oxygen cylinders to patients.

“In places where they have to evacuate, we have to be very sensitive to the fact they may have a long haul on the interstate,” said Bill Guidetti, executive vice president, East zone. “There’s a lot that goes on in advance for that. No one had any indication of just how bad it was going to be.”

Challenges are likely ahead for the foreseeable future, says Heath.

“I suspect many patients’ homes are going to be condemned,” he said. “Finding our patients over the next two months is going to be quite a feat.”