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Nursing home regulators and patient advocates have begun sounding an alarm about patient safety in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Experts say that the storm revealed just how ill prepared many nursing facilities are for natural disasters or other large-scale emergencies.

Hurricane Sandy was just one in a long line of examples of how the nursing home industry has done little to prepare itself in the event of a major emergency. Even in New York, where residents have been trained for disaster since 9/11, thousands of residents in coastal nursing facilities were stranded in the days after the storm moved through.

Regulators have taken note of the problem and officials with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have said they expect to issue new disaster planning regulations this year. CMS officials say they hope to avoid problems encountered during Hurricane Sandy.

Researchers with the University of Pittsburgh who have studied the emergency evacuation plans of more than 2,000 nursing homes across the country say most facilities are good about certain issues, but then fall down in other areas of disaster preparedness. For instance, many homes have good plans in place regarding food, water and transportation, but tend to fall apart beyond that. Plans for communicating when phones are down, moving medical records and checking on medications are woefully insufficient.

The response during Sandy revealed some of these problems. Many discovered that while transportation was often arranged for residents in at-risk facilities, huge delays soon developed because no one knew where to take the patients. Facilities often took in too many residents and were not able to properly care for the influx of new people. In other cases, medical records that are critical to caring for seniors never made it along with the displaced residents.

Another factor that many nursing homes need to contend with is that unnecessary evacuations can come with tremendous costs to especially vulnerable patients. Medical experts say that evacuations can cause the most seriously ill patients to go into a sudden decline. In fact, studies show that death rates among nursing home patients typically spike between 30 and 90 days following an evacuation.

About the Editors: Our personal injury law firm has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC). The attorneys with the firm publish and edit articles on three Legal Examiner sites for the geographic areas of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Northeast North Carolina as a pro bono service to the general public.

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