Public health officials call for Medicaid coverage of medical battery devices

As hurricane and fire seasons have begun for millions of Americans, public health officials are calling for preventive measures for the medically vulnerable.

Using lessons from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Camp Fire in Northern California, healthcare workers know that power outages impact in-home medical devices and jeopardize the lives of the vulnerable—primarily seniors. A new report from the Clean Energy Group and the Meridian Institute lays out the risks associated with power outages and gives recommendations to improve technologies to run without this power, including Medicaid-funded batteries.

One-third of the estimated 4,645 deaths associated with Hurricane Maria in 2017 were attributed to health complications, including medical device failure. And data published after Hurricane Irma in 2017 showed that more than 15% of deaths were attributed to power outages that worsened medical conditions.

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“Until now, emergency backup power options for households reliant on electricity-dependent medical equipment were limited,” lead report author Marriele Mango, a program associate at the Clean Energy Group, said in a statement. “Battery storage is a new solution that could fundamentally change how medically vulnerable households prepare and prevail through an outage. The public health and energy fields must start working together to ensure that this high-risk population is protected with these new emerging energy technologies in the event of an outage.”

While many seniors are vulnerable, there is also a substantial children’s population that could be affected by a natural disaster. The report estimates between 73,600 and 184,000 children in the U.S. rely on electricity-dependent medical technology.

And it seems the impact of outages is growing. Electric power outages almost doubled from 2016 to 2017, and the effects can be long-lasting. Five months after Hurricane Maria, 400,000 people still had no power. In 2018, hurricanes Michael and Florence left more than a million people without electricity.

The report laid out suggestions for policymakers and public health professionals including funding the research into energy security for home health patients; developing data to accurately portray the size of electricity-dependent populations; working with healthcare workers and home health agencies; creating residential battery storage programs; and expanding Medicare coverage to include battery storage.

According to the report, battery storage systems can even be used when electricity is functioning to help reduce energy demand and electricity costs. And several states and some utilities are offering incentives to consumers to install home battery storage systems. Finally, battery storage paired with solar PV can provide longer-duration power than batteries alone.

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“The lack of a comprehensive, publicly available dataset makes it difficult to determine the exact size and demographic characteristics of the in-home, electricity-dependent population. To determine the size and scope of the electricity-dependent population, utilities and agencies such as Medicare and Medicaid should pool resources, coordinate data and fund researchers to develop more reliable information into a single, unified source,” the report stated.

To help curb the issue, the paper also calls for utilities to provide battery storage to homes, especially for those with medically dependent needs. Plus, emergency programs should offer funding for low-income battery storage programs.

The report also recommends a third-party technology company market battery storage solution to home healthcare residencies. A more advanced product might help bring down costs. Finally, the report says that battery storage should be on the list of Medicare-eligible medical equipment that can be prescribed.