Could failed power, hospital evacuations be the new normal?

Following NYU Langone Medical Center's total evacuation during the Sandy storm, other New York and nearby East Coast hospitals also are reporting their backup generators have failed.

Bellevue Hospital Center's fuel pumps for its backup generators--some located in the basement--failed, leading to hospital shut down Wednesday night, The New York Times reported, and resulting in a 500-patient evacuation, according to a Mount Sinai Medical Center statement Thursday morning.

In New Jersey, Palisades Medical Center, whose backup generator also failed, had to transfer patients to Hackensack University Medical Center, according to ABC's Good Morning America reported.

In addition to the power outages, the concerning failed backup systems are drawing comparisons to the nightmare scenarios in recent history, including Hurricane Katrina.

"What I find most remarkable about this story is that [more than seven] years after Hurricane Katrina, major hospitals still have critical backup systems like generators in basements that are prone to flooding," Arthur Kellermann, policy chair at RAND Corporation and founder of Emory University's emergency department, told ProPublica.

Kellermann further pointed out the painful irony of a city that has lived through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Blackout of 2003 has once again had its limits put to the test. New York City's hospitals and health department "have taken preparedness more seriously than nearly everyone else in the country, particularly since 9/11," he told ProPublica.

And there are worries the failed systems could point to an even greater trend, in which hospital evacuations are the "new normal," as Dan Hanfling, special adviser for emergency preparedness and response for Inova Health System in Virginia, told ProPublica.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared New York in a state of public health emergency Wednesday morning, NY1 reported.

The state health department also authorized surge-capacity plans, in which other nearby hospitals can accept patients beyond normal capacity.

Brian Conway, a spokesman for the Greater New York Hospital Association, called this an "unprecedented challenge." He said, "The New York hospital community has always come through in finding beds for evacuated patients, and we're confident that'll happen again, but we're pushing the envelope right now," according to the NYT.

Although NYU Langone and the receiving hospitals are being hailed for successful patient transfers, the hospital also is getting some backlash over its mid-storm evacuations and the placement of the generators.

"You expect that, with a flood, water will go to the basement, so you can't put all your backup power there," ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Richard Besser said in the Good Morning America article.

Hurricane Sandy has fed into closer scrutiny of whether it's time to update disaster plan regulations.

All accredited hospitals are required to have backup generators in the event of a power failure, under the Joint Commission and the National Fire Protection Association standards. The Joint Commission requires tests 12 times a year for 30 minutes and once every three years for four hours, ProPublica noted.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is reviewing the hospitals' power failures, including NYU's Langone Medical Center, Politico Pro reported.

For more information:
- read the NYT article
- here's the Mount Sinai statement
- see the Good Morning America report
- check out the ProPublica article
- read the NY1 article
- here's the Politico Pro article (subscription required)

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