Katrina lessons still flooding in

Even as they watch the devastation in Japan following last week's earthquakes, U.S. hospitals are still learning lessons from the fallout of 2005's Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Some big ones about emergency preparedness, particularly electrical grid protection, are coming from a major class action lawsuit that got underway yesterday.

The suit alleges that Tenet Healthcare (NYSE: THC) and Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans are responsible for patient deaths because they had been notified of potential flooding risk to generators and electrical systems that were located on the ground floor of their facilities, according to the New York Times. Ultimately multiple facilities' power systems failed due to rising flood waters, the newspaper reports. When the waters receded, 45 patients were found dead at Memorial.

Also, the lawsuit charges that the health system's emergency backup power systems failed after only two days of operation, leading to skyrocketing temperatures in the facilities, and ultimately to patient deaths.

Overall, the suit presses the point that Tenet was alerted a day before the hurricane hit that its facilities were vulnerable to power outages, but did not pursue evacuations at that time. In Tenet's favor: All hospitals were exempted from the mandatory evacuation order by the city's mayor, the Times reports. The suit also alleges that Tenet had been notified years prior that it needed to upgrade its backup systems, but refused.

Tenet officials responded that, like many in the city during the disaster, they had to establish some emergency procedures as the disaster evolved. They told the Times that they spent more than $1 million on airplanes, buses, ambulances and security personnel to support evacuations and other emergency activities at its six hospitals.

The lawsuit may focus unwelcome attention on general hospital emergency preparedness in the U.S., industry watchers warn. CMS is already under pressure to release proposed regs it developed to fix systemic preparedness problems in the wake of Katrina. The draft rules were supposed to be released in January, but have been delayed.

On the flip side, however, there's no more funding to broaden emergency preparedness efforts, as President Obama's newest budget proposal would cut national hospital preparedness programs by about 10 percent, the Times notes.

For more:
- read the New York Times article
- check out the Medical Malpractice blog post