Pa. hospitals open doors to victims

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HARRISBURG -- At the urging of state officials, 11 Pennsylvania hospitals, including two in Pittsburgh, are opening their doors to treat Haitians who have serious earthquake-related injuries such as severe burns, spinal cord injuries, head trauma and amputated limbs.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the West Penn Allegheny Health System joined St. Vincent Hospital in Erie and several hospitals in Philadelphia to take an undetermined number of seriously injured earthquake victims, Gov. Ed Rendell and state Health Secretary Everette James said Monday.

Mr. Rendell wrote to federal officials to say that Pennsylvania hospitals would treat Haitian victims, thereby helping Florida hospitals, which are currently overwhelmed with at least 600 Haitians who were severely injured in the Jan. 12 tremors that rocked the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, knocking down many buildings.

"Pennsylvania stands ready to support these severely injured Haitian patients and their families regardless of federal reimbursement," Mr. Rendell said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

He said state officials got a call last week from the U.S. Transportation Command "requesting that Pennsylvania accept Haitian trauma patients." As a result, the state Health Department has agreed "to coordinate medical assessments at [Pennsylvania] airports, transportation to the hospitals and communicate with the hospitals regarding available beds."

Hospitals in several other states in the northeastern U.S. also have been asked to help, the governor told reporters at the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has resumed urgent medical evacuation flights out of Haiti for earthquake victims, The Associated Press reported. An Army spokesman said a flight left Haiti for the U.S. Sunday night, almost five days after flights were suspended due to arguing over space and health costs at American hospitals.

Another plane with space for 15 people was ready to fly yesterday to the United States. One American medical officer said he knows of seven people who likely will die if they aren't flown within 48 hours to America for treatment.

One major unresolved question is who will pay for all the treatment that the injured Haitians will receive at American hospitals.

Mr. Rendell said he is hoping the federal government will cover all the expenses run up at Pennsylvania hospitals, but if it doesn't, he will ask for private contributions to cover the costs.

The state used up all of its one-time budget reserve funds in order to close a $3.2 billion deficit in the fiscal 2009-10 budget, and Mr. Rendell is putting the final touches on his speech about the 2010-11 spending plan, which he will deliver next Tuesday.

But even if the state has to dip into its heavily used account for Medical Assistance for low-income people -- which is always one of the major items in the state budget -- Mr. Rendell said he really has no choice but to do so, given the scale of human devastation from last month's earthquake in Haiti.

"It isn't good if [the state budget] has to absorb certain costs, but there are certain things we don't stop doing," he said. "That's what we're here for. We can't turn our back on people who are sick and disabled. We want to make sure these people get the appropriate medical care."

Because there has been much political debate in recent months about what to do about illegal immigrants who have entered the U.S., Mr. Rendell asked federal officials for guidance "regarding immigration status for the Haitians entering the U.S."

Spokesmen for UPMC and Allegheny General said they are waiting to get more information as to how many injured Haitians may be coming to their hospitals and what the nature of their medical problems would be.

The victims going to Allegheny General would be in addition to a cancer-stricken 16-year-old boy who was flown Sunday to Allegheny General's Suburban Campus in Bellevue. Doctors will try to save his leg and his life.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood noted that two weeks ago, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC "accepted, evaluated and treated 54 orphans from Haiti as part of our humanitarian mission that was led by the governor and Congressman Jason Altmire."

Carolyn Scanlon of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania is working with the state to identify medical services available at hospitals across the state and to find those with the bed space and the requisite medical skills to treat victims with severe head injuries, spinal cord damage, mangled limbs and severe burns.

She said there are 180 acute-care hospitals and another 40 rehab hospitals in the state, and she hopes to identify more than the 11 hospitals that so far have volunteered to treat Haitian earthquake victims.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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