Providers persevere through floods, outages

Friday, November 2, 2012

YARMOUTH, Maine – Hurricane Sandy may be over, but HME providers and their patients in the hardest-hit areas are still dealing with the fallout—and there are more dark days ahead.

When Sandy struck the New Jersey coast Oct. 29, it cut power to East Coast residents and caused massive flooding.

"You can't even imagine the situation down there (in the New York City area)," said Carol Napierski, executive director of the New York Medical Equipment Providers Association. "Power lines are down in the streets and providers are walking through blocks of water to hand deliver tanks."

The patients most affected: oxygen users, say providers who have been fielding calls around the clock for days now.

With power still out in many areas and their supply of tanks dwindling, some providers are telling patients to go to local shelters or stay with loved ones who have power.

"The supplier that gives us tanks is under water," said Mike Kernes, general manager of Hackensack, N.J.-based Reliable Medical. "And their first priority is hospitals. That leaves us with a lot of scared, upset patients."

Providers also worry about gasoline shortages, which will make it hard to keep vehicles on the road.

"The gas supply is getting tight," said Bob Miller, president of Hackettstown, N.J.-based Bachs Home Health Care Supply. "They can't pump gas from the ground without power."

One upside to this hurricane: Providers were given enough notice to plan in advance.

"We put out hundreds of spare tanks," said Gary Sheehan, CEO of Sandwich, Mass.-based Cape Medical Supply. "We were able to take care of most of it before the storm got to us."

Provider Lou Kaufman says a company policy that requires all patients to have a 24-hour backup helped minimize difficulties, as did close ties to his oxygen supplier.

"Our sister company supplies commercial oxygen, so we never ran out—they filled cylinders for us around the clock," said Kaufman, vice president of patient/clinical services for Roberts Home Medical in Rockville, Md.

Though providers are happy to see most of their patients come through the storm OK, for them, the worst is hardly over. Many of them will struggle with big bills for things like extra gasoline and oxygen tanks, as well as employee overtime.

"There's a lot of expenses in a situation like this," said Paul Reses, owner of Pleasantville, N.J.-based Lincoln Medical Supply. "I don't know if that's considered when Medicare sets the costs for these services."