Kaiser Permanente has donated $500,000 to support mental health resources for those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, marking the first time the health system has specifically targeted mental and emotional health needs as a part of disaster relief funding.
The giant health system announced Tuesday it would donate $1 million to help with recovery efforts around the Houston area, which was hit hard when Hurricane Harvey made landfall last week, dumping more than 50 inches of rain and causing flooding throughout the city. So far, more than 60 people have died and more than 200,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed due to the hurricane.
Half of Kaiser's donation will go to the American Red Cross to help fund immediate relief in affected areas, including medical care, food, shelter and clothing.
The other half will go to Mental Health America of Greater Houston to provide mental health and emotional support for those affected by the storm, including survivors and first responders.
Mental Health America of Greater Houston has been spearheading the area's coordinated mental health relief effort, working in collaboration with city and county public health officials as well as the Network of Behavioral Health Providers, an organization made up of Houston-area mental health and substance use disorder providers.
The network mobilized in the immediate aftermath of the storm to provide evacuees in the George R. Brown Convention Center and the NRG Arena with 24-hour access to a team of volunteer therapists and counselors.
Kaiser is one of a number of large organizations in the healthcare sector that have committed donations of $1 million or more toward recovery and relief efforts in Houston.
Last month, Tennessee-based hospital giant HCA Healthcare announced plans to donate $2 million to the American Red Cross. Insurer UnitedHealthcare and pharmaceutical firm AbbVie have each pledged $1 million to the Red Cross, while drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb has said it will donate $250,000 to Americares, Direct Relief International and the Red Cross and give an additional $10 million in free medicine to those groups.
What sets Kaiser's announcement apart is the commitment toward aiding mental health support, which is needed but often overlooked after disasters.
Dr. Bechara Choucair, senior vice president and chief community health officer at Kaiser, said the decision to support mental health relief efforts was the result of seeing the short- and long-term impact a major disaster can have on survivors. He said it is a recognition of the important role behavioral health plays as a determinant in the physical health outcomes of patients.
"What we learned from previous natural disasters, particularly from Katrina, was the impact of disasters of this scale on the mental health and wellness on those affected can be significant," Choucair said. "An essential part of the recovery process should include addressing those needs."
Studies indicate Hurricane Katrina took a heavy toll on the mental health of survivors even years after the 2005 storm. Nearly half of Katrina survivors suffered from some type of mental health distress upon returning to New Orleans after the storm subsided, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
Survivors showed continued psychological distress nearly five years after Katrina, and nearly 30% of those studied in a 2013 analysis had distress levels high enough to indicate mental illness, compared to 24% prior to the storm.
Choucair said Kaiser is monitoring the situation in Houston to see if more behavioral healthcare volunteers need to travel to the area.
Recovery efforts continued Wednesday as the House passed an emergency aid package worth nearly $8 billion. According to Dr. John Myers, executive vice president at Envision Healthcare, an outsourcer of provider services for hospitals and clinics, news of emergency funding is welcome since it will help reimburse the costs of deploying hundreds of healthcare professionals in the affected areas over the past two weeks.
"It's had a huge financial impact on us," Myers said. "There's no doubt about it."