Industry contemplates Katrina's long-term repercussions

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Sunday, September 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- Acadiana Plastics Manufacturing and Letco Medical are located in two states whose coastal areas were ripped apart and flooded by Hurricane Katrina last Tuesday, but they were lucky to make it through the natural disaster largely unscathed.

APM in New Iberia, La., and Letco in Decatur, Ala., are two of the major manufacturers and distributors of respiratory drugs and the vials that hold them. Both companies experienced 50-mph winds and hard rain, but on Wednesday, they were up and running.

"We were out of power for six, seven hours, starting at 10 p.m. on Monday night," said Mickey Letson, president of Letco Medical. "It happened during the night, so it didn't impact our operations. We were ready to go the next morning."

But the future is uncertain, even for those whose paths Hurricane Katrina spared. As days go by and much of New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast are still swamped and without electricity, the HME industry is contemplating the long-term repercussions of the disaster.

Kent Louviere said APM, while currently operating at 100% capacity, might not be so lucky in a month or two, if it can't replenish its supply of resin, which it uses to make vials and other plastic products.

"Some of the big refineries are knocked out; they can't get their natural gas," said Louviere, the owner. "We're OK for September and October, hopefully. I've got resin secured, but for how long, nobody knows."

Wayne Vega, also of APM, shared his boss's concern: "In October, it might be much more significant than we think."

Right now, APM, about an hour and a half west of New Orleans, is re-routing its trucks through northern Louisiana. It's also asking its customers, including respiratory and oxygen providers like Lincare and Rotech, to place orders as early as possible.

Michael Hamilton, executive director of the Alabama Durable Medical Equipment Association, couldn't help but contemplate the worst on Wednesday morning. He, too, was lucky enough to be out of harm's way, but with major oxygen manufacturers in the area out of production, he feared for beneficiaries.

"This is going to shrink the supply of oxygen that's available -- everywhere," he said. "The obvious solution, which is what they're doing, is to get people out and get them in shelters far enough from damaged areas so that normal service is available."

Even in areas where normal service is available, however, HME providers struggle with questions about the rules for replacing damaged or lost equipment and submitting claims, industry sources said.

To help its members wade through the aftermath, the VGM Group set up a 24-hour hotline, 800-822-7830, and an emergency Web site, www.hmehurricane.com. On their respective Web sites, VGM and The MED Group (www.medgroup.com) both had links containing information for equipment needed and equipment available for donation.

The MED Group is also personally coordinating deliveries of equipment, said Bill Elliott, president and CEO.

"Texas Emergency Management contacted one of our members and asked for 100 manual wheelchairs for refugees," he said. "The member had 12 and we're working with other members and our vendor partners to get the remaining chairs to the Houston Astrodome."

On Friday, emergency management officials were still in the process of evacuating refugees from the Louisiana Superdome to the Astrodome.

Medline Industries delivered truckloads of medical supplies from its Atlanta, Memphis and Dallas facilities to hospitals and nursing homes in Louisiana and Mississippi in one of its various efforts to help.

Vernon Pertelle, Apria's corporate director of respiratory and HME services, said the company was working with emergency management officials, and on Wednesday, it was in the process of accounting for its patient base.

"We need to know where they are and what type of equipment and backup support they need," he said. "That's the biggest thing."

With the rush to provide those in the Gulf Coast area with what they need, whether it's HME or food and water, it was difficult for the industry to focus on the repercussions, at least for now.

"We've been dealing with the immediate so much, that I haven't given it a lot of thought," Elliott said. "Clearly, this is a human, environmental and economical disaster of almost biblical proportions. People who service others are even in need of service, because their businesses have been destroyed. I don't know how the industry will recover, but I do know it's a caring industry based on partnerships, and we will rebuild."

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