Ice storm tests providers

Sunday, December 21, 2008

YARMOUTH, Maine - When a deadly ice storm hit New England Dec. 11, leaving nearly 1 million people in the dark, providers leapt into action, supplying backup oxygen equipment to patients.

With no way to fill tanks, provider William Desmarais worried he wouldn't have enough of a reserve to service the roughly 800 of his oxygen patients without power in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"We had a generator to keep our file server going and three or four work stations, but we did not have the ability to fill our own tanks," said Desmarais, co-owner of Home Care Specialists, which has locations in Haverhill, Mass., and Concord, N.H.

Fortunately for Desmarais, electricity came back on Dec. 13, and employees were able to fill tanks over the weekend. In all, the company delivered close to 400 backup tanks.

"We had all our drivers out," Desmarais said. "We chewed up 250 hours of overtime just replacing backup tanks."

In addition to taking care of their own patients, providers supplied equipment to other HMEs, emergency shelters, assisted living facilities and ambulance companies.

"We have several concentrators--they're portable setups--that are still at an emergency shelter because some of that area is still without power," said Tamme Dustin, director and CFO of Hooksett, N.H.-based Herron & Smith, the week following the ice storm.

Most providers went out of their way to help in any way they could, said Karyn Estrella, executive director of the New England Medical Equipment Dealers (NEMED).

"Our members were taking care of the community at large and trying to meet whatever needs they were hearing from the police departments or ambulances," she said.

That extra assistance was needed in New Hampshire, where state officials received calls from oxygen patients who were having trouble getting backup equipment. On Dec. 16, they asked NEMED to put out a call for help to its members, Estrella said.

At least three people have died as a result of the ice storm, including a 60-year-old man on oxygen. The man was hooked up to his concentrator, but it wasn't working due to the power outage.