CEO of Florida's Adventist Health System talks Hurricane Irma response, relief efforts

Like other Florida healthcare organizations, Altamonte Springs-based Adventist Health System has been busy with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

These efforts included temporary relief from medical bill payments for patients affected by the storm. For instance, AHS hospitals gave patients the option to request a 30-day pause on payments, with their payments adjusted accordingly, hospital officials said.

Patients could also potentially take advantage of other financial relief options, such as an additional 30-day extension, fee waivers or other hardship arrangements.

AHS President and CEO Terry Shaw recently answered questions from Becker's Hospital Review about the system's hurricane response efforts, including the financial relief options.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: How were AHS hospitals affected by Hurricane Irma?

Terry Shaw: It's interesting. Hurricanes can be tricky and Irma was a prime example. The projected path had it affecting the east coast of the state initially. The safety and security of our patients, visitors and employees is of the utmost importance. So, with a couple of hospitals on the east coast of the state, we proactively transferred patients to safer locations as a precaution. Then Irma shifted course and headed west, so out of an abundance of caution, we moved patients from our facility on the Gulf Coast.

Overall, our hospitals across Florida did well. We are still assessing some things, but most importantly, we did what we needed to do with the information we had to ensure that people were safe and that we could maintain a high level of care, even with the storm bearing down.

More than 30,000 of our own employees live and work in areas affected by the storm. Our people waded into harm's way to staff the hospitals on behalf of our communities. I was without power, myself. That's the remarkable part. We had so many people who, even though they were impacted, still had the dedication to serve the needs of patients and the community. I couldn't be prouder of them for that.

Q: How did hospitals respond?

TS: It took a great deal of planning and preparation. Our response to the hurricane started before the storm hit. When we confirmed that we could be affected by Irma, we went into action. That started with safeguards at our hospitals. Our supply chain team ensured that we had materials to take care of patients and then we stocked up on water and food for patients, staff and visitors. We did safety checks at our buildings. We solidified our power supply to ensure we would be able to provide exceptional care if there was an outage. In fact, we brought in several semi-trailers to Central Florida, with each being a generator on its own. We ended up using a few of them.

We also ensured our staff and care teams were prepared, on stand-by, and knew exactly what needed to be done before, during and after the storm. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation. We had business staff members looking after kids while their parents carried out their duties at the hospital. We had command centers set up. We had our IT people working to maintain our clinical and business systems as well. I was able to visit multiple command centers leading up to the storm. Our hospital leaders and staff did a great job preparing and executing in some pretty tough conditions.

Our care teams delivered dozens of babies, performed critical, life-saving procedures and surgeries, and we were able to provide additional services during the storm for those who needed them. Knowing that it wasn't safe to drive and wanting to keep the emergency department clear for patients with critical emergencies, we offered our live, secure telehealth service free of charge. Also, while many pharmacies in Central Florida were closed, our outpatient pharmacy at Florida Hospital Orlando remained open during the hurricane. We filled quite a bit more prescriptions that weekend than we do normally. People in the community were able to get their essential medications.

It was a complete and total team effort, and I'm thankful for all the employees who, to a great degree, put their personal obligations aside to care for patients and fulfill our mission.

Q: How did hospitals change their billing practices?

TS: Hurricane Irma devastated so many lives. It's going to take time for the state to rebuild. Our mission of "Extending the Healing Ministry of Christ" goes beyond the walls of our facilities. There are so many ways that we are trying to help our communities and employees rebuild and heal. We wanted to proactively get information on our websites and in our billing statements to let people know we wanted to work with them on their hospital bills. Some of our hospitals set up funds to provide assistance to employees who were affected by the storm. We also encouraged employees to give as they could to organizations like the United Way and the Adventist Development Relief Agency. Even recently, one of our hospitals held a major fundraising drive to support those affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. That's who we are as people. That's probably why they became caregivers in the first place. They sincerely want to help.


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