More than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association began laying the foundation for an integrated emergency preparedness network that the state relies on for emergencies today.
It was in June 2000 when representatives from the VHHA began discussions with the Virginia Health Department and Virginia Emergency Management Department to unite Virginia hospitals in emergency-planning efforts, remembers Steve Ennis, now technical adviser for the VHHA's hospital emergency preparedness program.
“The thing that set us apart a little bit and made the program in Virginia as strong as it is—and, we've been told, one of the strongest—I think was that we had built a relationship between the hospital association, the state health department and the state emergency management department,” Ennis says. “It made it a natural avenue into this partnership being responsible for distributing funds,” he says of the group known as the Hospital Emergency Management Committee, a working subcommittee of the VHHA that includes healthcare representatives from six regions throughout Virginia.
The funds Ennis mentions came initially from HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration, and amounted to $2.98 million in fiscal 2002 before jumping to $11.9 million in fiscal 2003. Beginning in 2007, the federal funding stream shifted from the HRSA to HHS' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
“Our Northern Virginia hospitals were involved in the Pentagon situation” on Sept. 11, Ennis says, “and they saw the effect of having something of that scale hitting the area. It was certainly an incentive to recognize that regionalization was a necessary thing and being involved with other stakeholders was important.”
Zachary Corrigan is the Northern Virginia regional coordinator of the HEMC and the executive director of the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance. As he explains, the alliance developed after Sept. 11 when representatives of 13 hospitals in Northern Virginia came together to prepare for the next crisis, which they thought was imminent. The alliance now has 14 member hospitals.
“It's like the VHHA in terms of its structure,” Corrigan says of the alliance, “but it's different in that the only purpose of the NVHA is to prepare those 14 facilities for emergency.”
After the Sept. 11 attack, the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington received about 45 patients, Inova Alexandria (Va.) Hospital received about 35, and a few others went to the Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center, Corrigan says.
“During 9/11, there was no radio system that connected all of the hospitals in my region together,” he says. “We have that now. That was one of the first major investments,” he says, adding that another is the Virginia Hospital Alerting & Status System, an online tool created in 2003 for statewide communication.
Now a mainstay in Virginia, these communication resources were crucial this past May in the aftermath of a deadly tour bus accident on Interstate 95 in Virginia's Caroline County, says Corrigan. The incident occurred along the northern and central regions of HEMC's six regions, with the central region hospitals picking up most of the patients.
He says the region did a good job establishing communication between the hospitals in this emergency, but he acknowledges there is more work to do in preparing hospitals for the worst.
“In our own region, we can have good investments in disaster equipment, but if we haven't made sure our hospitals have been able to maintain their system without power and water, there's only so much we can do to make sure they still stay open,” Corrigan says. “Some of these investments are capital-intensive.”
And that's why Corrigan hopes Congress understands continued federal funding is required to make these improvements. ASPR funding for 2009 was $8.8 million and increased to $9.5 million for fiscal 2010.
“We're coming up on 10 years after 9/11, which is an acute memory for my region,” Corrigan says. “There are many more gaps to be resolved in my region, the state and nationwide,” he says, adding that they're “tremendously farther along” than they were 10 years ago. “It's an important message to Congress: We can't declare victory yet on disasters. There is work that remains to be done and dramatic loss of funding for these programs would be devastating.”