Ice storm tests providers

Sunday, January 21, 2007

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - An ice storm that blacked out large tracts of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma earlier this month forced even the most well-prepared HME providers to find creative ways to continue servicing oxygen patients.

Employees at Bach Medical Supply in Springfield, Mo., for example, powered cell phones and shop lights with wheelchair batteries, so they could field calls and ready tanks for patients no longer able to use concentrators. When a major distributor of specialty gases was still without power a few days into the storm, St. John's Medical Supply lent the company its generator.

"By then we had power," said Ben Galbraith, director of St. John's, an affiliate of St. John's Hospital, also in Springfield. "So we loaned it to them--that way they could fill tanks for us and others."

In the thick of the storm, which frosted power lines and trees with snow and ice, about 75,000 utility customers in Springfield, the state's third-largest city, lost power. A week later, about 25,000 were still blacked out.

Most providers were back on the grid within hours or a few days, but until then, some came dangerously close to depleting their reserve tanks. Once they had power, providers with transfilling stations replenished their supply.

Even before the storm hit, providers had their delivery technicians working around the clock to deliver tanks. Bach Medical had four trucks on the road 24/7.

"We'd drop off enough tanks to last 100 hours, and then we'd go back and swap them," said Steve Bach, who co-owns Bach Medical.

Luckily, the snow and ice didn't make roads impassable, allowing service techs to complete most deliveries without trouble. When making their deliveries, techs tried to encourage patients still without power to relocate to a shelter.

"It's been getting down to 0 degrees at night," said Chris Gasek, director of HME for Citizen's Memorial Home Medical Equipment in Bolivar, Mo., which is just north of Springfield. "Some homes have wood stoves, but for those who don't, we give them the option of bringing them to a shelter. The cold does affect an oxygen patient's ability to breathe."

If the ice storm was a "test of our emergency response, I think we pretty much passed," Galbraith said.

Still, Galbraith plans to make several improvements so that St. John's is better prepared to serve patients during the next emergency. In his next budget, he plans to request a second transfilling station and, because the generator St. John's used was borrowed from the hospital, his own generator.