The ripple effects of hurricanes Irma and Harvey continue. Lack of power, fuel, running water, and food continue to pose a problem for residents and the many organizations and responders on the ground to help. Health centers in the impacted areas are dispensing medicines, hygiene kits and other supplies, even from damaged or flooded sites. Organizations like Direct Relief have made an enormous difference in getting the pipeline of needed resources to health centers in the damage zones. They have also ramped up those efforts with the creation of the Hurricane Community Health Fund [see press release]. The fund is the result of a collaboration between Direct Relief, the Texas Association of Community Health Centers (TACHC), the Florida Association of Community Health Centers (FACHC), the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), and the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NAFC). The fund will be used solely for the benefit of hurricane-affected communities and people – particularly those who have low incomes, lack insurance, and are among the most vulnerable residents – and will be directed to health centers.
Health centers are already incurring a number of hurricane-related expenses, such as emergency staffing, repairs to damaged or flooded facilities, gas for mobile units, or emergency purchases of medicines and supplies. Still, the challenges haven’t stopped health centers from responding. A case in point is Tampa Family Health Centers (TFHC), which has been working tirelessly to support other health centers in affected areas – despite having two sites closed because they lost power – and the Tampa community directly affected by the storm. TFHC also worked with the local hospital to be a staging area for local law enforcement and sent over mobile units to a health center in Pinellas County. The health center’s staff also donated hygiene products to the “Caring for the Keys” foundation to support families affected by Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys.
Many of the efforts of TFHC and other area health centers in the aftermath of these disasters would not have been possible if the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and Congress had not granted some flexibility with Federal Tort Claims Act coverage (FTCA), which provides medical malpractice coverage for health center employees and contractors. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana Gulf Coast in 2005, providers were desperately needed in affected areas, and volunteers arrived in mobile units from neighboring areas and other states. But due to restrictions in place at the time, these providers lacked FTCA coverage and therefore could not help. Since then, health center advocates and NACHC fought for over nearly a decade to lift the federal red tape, to allow health center employees to care for neighbors in nearby communities, and to expand FTCA coverage to licensed medical practitioners who wish to volunteer at health centers, especially during disasters. HRSA recently revised its rules to extend FTCA to health center providers who care for patients in neighboring areas in response to an emergency. And last winter, Congress expanded FTCA coverage to include volunteer providers, starting October 1 of this year. Note that getting coverage for volunteers involves a few initial extra hurdles, as health centers must apply for – and HRSA must approve – each volunteer individually. So even though the effective date is still a few weeks away, our advice is to get started on the paperwork. Here are some resources to help you get started: