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TOP MEDICAL GROUP: KATRINA SHOWS
U.S. PUBLIC HEALTH CARE IN DANGER
By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
November 21, 2005
WASHINGTON (PAI)–Hurricane Katrina shows the U.S. public health care system, which in the widest sense of the words is supposed to handle millions of people in event of a calamity, is in great danger, a top medical group leader says.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association and a former Maryland Secretary of Public Health, issued dire warning at a health care symposium sponsored by the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees on Nov. 9. And he challenged unions–and indeed the entire country–to do something about it.
Katrina’s devastation left millions of people homeless, jobless or both, literally wrecked Louisiana’s public hospital system, actually leveled at least one New Orleans hospital and left tens of thousands of residents of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama without basic health care services and with few ways to get them.
There was a failure beforehand” to plan for catastrophes, Benjamin said. There was a failure of implementation” of those plans that had been created. And there was a failure in environmental planning” which resulted in many toxic waste sites in the New Orleans area, whose poisonous chemicals were loosed by Katrina’s floods.
Add a hurricane and a flood” to those failures and you have a real fundamental failure in public health. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in the U.S.,” he warned.
The other panelists–Fire Fighters Occupational Safety and Health Director Patrick Morrison, AFSCME industrial hygienist Denise Bland-Bowles, AFGE communications specialist Adele Stan and AFT/UFT industrial hygienist Ellie Engler–discussed the specific hazards they found in New Orleans after Katrina.
They ranged from the dangers of water-borne disease to first responders, which Morrison cited, to widespread structural deterioration through toxic mold, which AFSCME workers had to battle in their government buildings after the flood waters receded, to schools so dangerous that they may need to be torn down and rebuilt.
A lot of our bus drivers had to come back in” after the water receded, Bland-Bowles said, referring to school district bus drivers AFSCME represents in the Gulf Coast area. They’re not trained to deal with sludge, slurry and mold.”
But health problems in the wake of Katrina were even more basic than that, Benjamin noted. Were people even safe? Were those still in the city (New Orleans) getting health services? Could you even walk through the communities and could people move back into their homes, given all the toxins?” he asked.
But there were other problems the panelists described, and they warned that such problems could recur in other disasters, including hurricanes and terror attacks:
* Communications breakdowns. Morrison said that even now, four years after 9/11–where his union lost 343 New York City Fire Fighters plus their priest when the World Trade Center towers collapsed–telecommunications systems between first responders crashed in Katrina. That failure must be fixed, he warned.
The National Incident Response System” created after 9/11 looked great on paper, but it wasn’t there” when Katrina hit, Morrison said.
* A second facet of the communications breakdown was failure to get the word to the most-vulnerable groups, particularly the poor, and to convince them to move away from danger. At least one panelist pinpointed a failure of trust” for that result.
I don’t know where FEMA was. They’re still trying to get organized,” Morrison said of GOP President Bush’s heavily criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency.
* The public health system–its hospitals and clinics, which were damaged or destroyed by Katrina–is the entire health system, in fact, for the poor in areas such as New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and Cook County, Ill. (Chicago), Benjamin’s hometown. But public policy in terms of aiding that system and equipping it to treat massive numbers of people in a disaster does not recognize that fact, he noted. In the Katrina-hit area, Bland-Bowles said, the public health system needs to be completely reconstructed. That would hold true for other disasters, too, panelists said.
* When a major city is evacuated and smashed, as New Orleans was, it needs basic public health workers–sanitarians, restaurant inspectors, environmental health specialists–to help ensure it is habitable again. But its own employees are scattered all over the country, the panelists noted. That leaves inspection often in the hands of private industry, which may be unable or unsuited for the job.
* The key decision of whether to restore, or rip mold-devastated buildings down as completely uninhabitable and build again from scratch. Bland-Bowles said many area insurers are resisting findings that buildings must be condemned due to mold devastation not just of their plaster walls but of their basic structural supports.
The panelists said that given federal budget cuts, and the Bush administration’s attitudes towards the poor, unions may be left with task of stepping in and ensuring public healthcare in future disasters. They also have to stand up and defend public services, which people rely on when disaster hits. We need to be brave enough to fight for those services, despite the catcalls,” Stan concluded.