Hurricane Katrina and its impact on healthcare: 10 years after the storm

Healthcare delivery has changed dramatically in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit the shores of the United States and devastated New Orleans. The superstorm caused flooding, power outages, supply shortages, knocked out communications and left a million people displaced with little access to healthcare. 

In many ways, the disaster led to progressive changes in healthcare, writes Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health System, one of only three hospitals to remain open during and after Katrina, in a blog post for the Huffington Post. These changes include community partnerships to improve wellness and healthcare and the opening of neighborhood clinics to improve population health.

The superstorm's destruction allowed Ochsner's healthcare leaders to recruit and train talent, who wanted to make New Orleans healthier than before the hurricane. Many of those people who helped them rebuild stayed and are now members of the organization and other hospitals in New Orleans. This year alone, he writes, 400,000 patients from all over the U.S. and 99 countries traveled to New Orleans and Ochsner for care.

"We are constantly evolving to meet the needs of a new world in healthcare, and continue to capitalize on opportunities to be innovative and creative about how we educate and care for our patients, especially those suffering from chronic diseases," he writes.

The country is also certainly better prepared to handle disasters. A Stafford Act amendment now allows states easier access to resources before an anticipated disaster strikes. However, it's also impossible to create a protocol for all disasters, according to a piece from the Chicago Tribune. "So the challenge is for leaders at all levels to find new ways to coordinate their disaster plans--and to accept that climate change, a booming world population and other forces are causing more large-scale disasters," writes the Tribune's editorial board.

But not everything is for the better 10 years later. When the storm first hit, then President George W. Bush's administration failed to temporarily approve Medicaid expansion so thousands of uninsured evacuees were unable to receive health insurance and access to care, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP). And though most states have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, few Gulf Coast states have done so even though it has the potential to dramatically improve access to healthcare services during and after future natural disasters.

Indeed, a recent survey by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicates many New Orleans residents still have trouble accessing healthcare services and coverage.

"Expanding health insurance coverage is not a cure-all," says CAP issue brief author Thomas Huelskoetter in an announcement. "Future disasters will always require specific, targeted health policy changes to provide immediate relief, as well as long-term supports, particularly to ensure access to mental healthcare in the following months and years. Nevertheless, Medicaid coverage alone can make a huge difference."

To learn more:
- here's Thomas' post
- read the Chicago Tribune opinion piece
- check out the CAP issue brief
- read the issue brief announcement