Home Health Agencies Prep for Hurricane Matthew and Its Aftermath

In the wake of a final rule issuance on emergency preparedness from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), home health care companies were tested Friday as Hurricane Matthew barreled down on the United States.

The storm, which reached a Category 3 hurricane designation before weakening to category two, approached Central Florida on the Atlantic coast Friday, and was expected to impact nearly the entire East Coast of the country. Mandatory evacuations were reported in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina as winds topped 100 miles per hour and more than 1 million people lost power in Florida on Friday, according to the Weather Channel.

Several of the nation’s home health care companies were on alert as the storm approached, including Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Amedisys Inc. (Nasdaq: AMED), which was recently impacted in Louisiana after torrential rain caused devastating flooding that took the life of the company’s founder and former CEO in August.

On Alert

Amedisys began getting ready for the hurricane earlier this week, beginning with daily preparedness calls with its leadership in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, Kendra Kimmons, managing director of marketing and communications, tells Home Health Care News. The nation’s second-largest home health care provider closed approximately 30 care centers in those three states.

“Amedisys has a very robust emergency preparedness plan,” Kimmons tells HHCN. “Each new hire is required to take disaster recovery training and then all employees take a required annual training on natural disasters. We also have a corporate emergency preparedness and recovery committee that works directly with regional and local leadership to implement our plans.”

Prior to the storm, the company began to follow plans to prepare and ensure patients and employees were ready.

“This includes making sure each care center reaches out to all of their patients to review and record specific hurricane/evacuation plans; patient education regarding medication needs; and [ensuring] that they have an adequate food and water supply, medical supplies and battery back-ups for medical devices. We also ensure the care centers have patients’ emergency contact information,” Kimmons says.

Once the hurricane reached the United States, Amedisys’ emergency preparedness and recovery committee started meeting twice per day, including through the weekend, to stay updated and begin recovery efforts, Kimmons says.

Similarly, another home health care giant, Lafayette, Louisiana-baed LHC Group Inc. (Nasdaq: LHCG) has closed offices in Ocala, Titusville and Cocoa Beach, Florida, and the company is monitoring the storm for further closures that might become necessary. The company is also ensuring it has contact with its patients and staff in affected areas.

“We have activated our emergency protocol and contacted all of our patients to make sure they have a way to evacuate—or have family members who can help them do so,” Chris Stagg, LHC Group’s division vice president, coastal division, tells HHCN. “We are making sure our patients have extra medications, oxygen tanks and anything else they might need. We are utilizing our mass notification system to stay in connect with staff in affected areas. We also made sure that all agencies had contact information for the emergency services and authorities in their area.”

Preparation is Key

Being ready to communicate with patients, knowing who to care for and knowing where patients are during an emergency are essential for home health care agencies.

“[The most important steps] are to ensure patients are covered, that agencies know how to communicate with patients, get patients evacuated or make arrangements for them with other health care providers,” Mary Carr, associate director for regulatory affairs at the National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC), tells HHCN. “They also really need to go local with their preparedness to local organizations and leadership.”

Amedisys stayed in contact with its patients prior to and during the storm by calling them and reaching out with emergency information to ensure their safety and continuity of care. Staying in touch frequently also helps clinicians get to patients quickly once the storm has passed.

“During the storm, care centers call patients daily through the emergency contact information gathered before the storm to check on them,” Kimmons says of the procedure to stay in communication. “Immediately following the storm, once it is safe for our clinicians, the care centers go out to each patient’s home or evacuation point to check on them.”

At this point, Amedisys isn’t sure what steps it will take in terms of recovery, but is prepared to send fuel trucks so clinicians can get fuel without waiting in long lines to see patients. The company has also sourced hotel rooms for anyone who needs housing, as well as prepared to give financial assistance to any impacted employees and will send other supplies, including food and water, as needs arise, Kimmons says.

LHC Group has tapped into its technology to aid its communication and preparation.

“With the help of our IT department, we’ve implemented an emergency communication plan we call ‘office in a box,’” Stagg says. “This setup includes equipment that allows us to maintain connections with our patients and support staff. Each affected office receives a complete kit. This is shipped overnight and, if needed, we have someone in Pensacola who can drive the equipment to where it needs to be.”

The plan includes a fleet service to help staff get fuel after the storm; to locate all patients after the storm and ensure their safety; and working to restore full service capabilities as soon as its safe to do so, including working with neighboring agencies, Stagg says.

The hurricane underscores the importance of having emergency plans in place and knowing what to do to be prepared. Once CMS passes its final rule, home health care agencies will have to ensure they meet the new requirements, though they may already be familiar with many of the preparedness procedures.

“I think the rule will be hard work for agencies, but it’s necessary,” says Carr. “This brings the rule home. It’s not just a rule that’s meant to be a pain.”

Written by Amy Baxter