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House Subcommittee Examines HHS Preparedness and Response to 2017 Hurricanes

The U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee held a hearing yesterday to examine the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) public health preparedness for and response to the 2017 hurricane season.

The subcommittee’s stated goals of the hearing included finding answers to the following questions:

  • What steps could HHS take to expedite the waiver process for hospitals after a public health emergency is declared?
  • What are the most concerning long-term public health risks facing areas impacted by hurricanes?
  • Have dialysis patients received adequate treatment during the hurricanes and in the aftermaths?
  • How long are hospitals in Puerto Rico expected to operate on generators and what operational limitations does that present?
  • How did HHS coordinate its hurricane responses with other federal agencies and state governments?
  • Do Puerto Ricans have access to a sufficient number of health care facilities, pharmaceuticals, and medical products?

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Vice Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, emphasized in his written statement that “[r]ebuilding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will take years. The health care systems are in dire condition and most of the operational facilities need some degree of assistance. To make matters worse, the electrical grid has been devastated which has significantly hampered recovery efforts. We still don’t even know the full extent of the damage—let alone when our fellow citizens will have electricity and running water restored. We are trying to make sure we are doing everything possible to address the short- and long-term needs of those living in the areas impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, especially in the face of the public health threats that have resulted—and will continue to result—from these storms.”

The Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), noted in his written statement  his intent to make sure “that Americans in need get the assistance they require, cannot and should not be a partisan matter. If certain agencies are not pulling their weight, we want to know; if there are federal laws or policies that are impeding the recovery efforts, we want to know that as well. In addition, we also want to hear about any best practices that can be gleaned from the ongoing recovery efforts that can be utilized in the response to any future natural disasters.”

The following were present at the hearing as witnesses: Ms. Kimberly Brandt, Principal Deputy Administrator for Operations Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Honorable Scott Gottlieb, MD, Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Honorable Robert P. Kadlec, MD, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Department of Health and Human Services; and Rear Admiral Upper Half Stephen C. Redd, MD, Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ms. Brandt  informed the Subcommittee that: “The areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate will continue to encounter significant and unique challenges as they face the task of rebuilding. We must continue to think creatively about all the ways we can help and make a difference for all those depending on us to ensure they have healthcare and access to needed supplies and prescriptions. This hurricane season has forced us to think outside of the box for creative ways to support and communicate with those serving the communities impacted by the storms, and CMS stands ready to work with our partners across the Federal government and, most importantly, with local communities, healthcare providers, and patients. CMS will continue to build upon our recent experiences from these significant storms to improve our readiness for the next natural disaster. We appreciate the Subcommittee’s interest in these efforts, and look forward to working with you throughout the recovery process.”

Mr. Gotlieb added: “This will be a long recovery. The devastation was significant. But we are in this for the long run. All of these storms present FDA with hard challenges. We have committed ourselves to provide relief to affected Americans. This has been our highest priority at FDA since these storms struck. I have been personally engaged, on a daily basis, in these efforts. The devastation in Puerto Rico – owing to its unique role as a base for the manufacture of many sophisticated, complex, and vital medical products – presents FDA with especially complex challenges. We are committed to the people of Puerto Rico, their recovery, and their efforts to maintain their jobs and their proud and vital manufacturing history.”

Mr. Kadlec, in a written statement, emphasized that “The Assistant Secretary for Preparedness Response is still actively in response mode with respect to the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Now that much of the response effort is concluding, the recovery effort will continue for years. We will continue to partner with FEMA over the next several years during this long period of recovery. We have a team who has been tracking information throughout the response for an after action report. This report will be critical to future operations. We will be building on things we performed well, and fixing areas that need improvement.”

Rear Admiral Redd acknowledged in a prepared statement that the “CDC recognizes that the full recovery from the recent hurricanes will take some time, particularly for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands where the damage is extensive, but we are here to continue providing support. We will continue to work with FEMA, and all of our federal partners, over the next several years during this long period of recovery.”

The following Members of Congress attended the hearing: Vice Chairman Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Brooks (R- IN), Rep. Collins (R- NY), Rep. Burgess (R-TX), Rep. Barton (R-TX), Rep. Walberg (R-MI), Rep. Walters (R-CA), Rep. Costello (R-PA), Rep. Carter (R-GA), Rep. Walden (R-OR), Rep. DeGette (D-CO), Rep. Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Castor (D-FL), Rep. Tonko (D-NY), Rep. Clarke (D-NY), Rep. Ruiz (D-CA), Rep. Peters (D-CA), Rep. Pallone (D-NJ), Rep. Olson (R-TX), Rep. Bilirakis (R-FL), Rep. Duncan (R-SC), Rep. Green (D-TX), Rep. Gonzalez Colon (R-PR), and Rep. Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).

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