Providers face tornado's aftermath

Monday, May 30, 2011

JOPLIN, Mo. - When a 165-mph tornado tore through here on May 22, it didn't take long for Apria's team to get right into the action. 

Within 30 minutes of the tornado, Apria employees went out to help triage at a makeshift hospital. Manager Steve McCluney delivered oxygen, regulators and other supplies late into the night.

"Everyone just showed up, ready to go to battle," said McCluney. "We helped patients from all DME companies, because it was a humanitarian effort, because of the chaos and destruction. We helped whoever needed help."

Apria's branch here is located just six blocks from where the tornado touched down and sustained some damage. Others weren't so lucky: The storm decimated a hospital and swept through the surrounding area, leaving at least 126 dead and more than twice that unaccounted for, according to news reports. 

Rose Schafhauser, executive director of the Midwest Association of Medical Equipment Services, has been in contact with providers from the Joplin area who have worked around the clock since the tornado hit.

"They're the people in the street trying to dodge the stuff that was thrown around to try and get to their patients and give them what they need," said Schafhauser. 

McCluney and his team have had to drive through restricted areas to deliver equipment to patients. They found some patients in hospitals and some in the homes of relatives. One patient was found when an employee saw her being interviewed on the Today Show. 

As of May 26, McCluney said most phone lines were up but cell phones were spotty, especially in the destruction area. Many were communicating through text message, he said. 

If Joplin had been in a competitive bidding area, Schaufhauser said she would have been concerned that there weren't enough providers to pick up the slack for those that sustained damage. 

"What's going to happen when the rates are so low that it forces these companies out?" said Schafhauser. "They're bringing all their hospital beds to the hospitals. What are the patients going to do if these providers are taken away?"