State slashes funds to store emergency supplies

May 10, 2012 12:07:12 AM PDT
When a major earthquake hits or a pandemic breaks out, will the state of California be ready? The ABC7 News I-Team uncovered budget cuts could put millions of dollars worth of medical supplies out of reach for Californians when they need them most.

The state has slashed the emergency medical supplies budget. It no longer wants to store or maintain crucial materials that would be needed in a catastrophe, potentially putting you and your family at risk.

Wearing make-up, acting injured, learning how to care for the wounded... that's how volunteers spent hours running through a mock earthquake drill this past weekend in Oakland. Volunteering their own time, just as the state is ready to give up life-saving medical assets that would be needed in this type of situation.

The emergency supplies in question are kept in secret locations around the state. The director of the California Emergency Medical Services Authority, Dr. Howard Backer, led us on a tour at one spot outside Sacramento.

"Having this type of disaster asset is like having an insurance policy," he said.

Color-coded boxes represent a kind of paint by number puzzle -- when the pieces are put together, they make a 200-bed mobile field hospital ready for an emergency.

"In California the obvious scenario for that is our... a major earthquake in the Bay Area or in Southern California," Backer said.

In 2006, the Schwarzenegger administration purchased three mobile hospitals as part of a cache of emergency medical supplies totally $166.5 million.

"We were planning for a pandemic influenza where there would be huge surge or increase in the number of patients that we thought would exceed the capacity of the healthcare system," Backer said.

Along with the mobile field hospitals, the state purchased antivirals, ventilators, respirators, and other medical supplies. To store and maintain these materials costs $4.1 million a year. It costs another $1.7 million to house the mobile hospitals. But as a casualty of budget cuts, the state has decided to slash the storage funds, leaving the supplies in limbo.

"These are really, really important assets for California. We don't want to see them destroyed," Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, said. He says the state wants to give the supplies to the counties, non-profits and private organizations, passing on the expense of maintaining them, as well. "Our primary goal is to keep the supplies in California to be used by Californians. We didn't want to see those supplies leaving the state."

The counties tell the ABC7 News I-Team storing the supplies will be a challenge, especially because the state has put restrictions on using the materials and is offering no additional funding.

"I think it's important to remember that just taking something from the state and passing it to the county without any additional funding really doesn't solve the problem. Counties are just as heavily strapped as the state," emergency management consultant Lu Canton said. He hasn't seen the state's plan, but he has concerns about how the supplies will make it to a needed area in the event of a disaster. "The question becomes how quickly can you re-assemble it? How quickly will it be needed? How well will it be maintained when it's not under central control?"

Chapman says that won't be an issue.

"In those local disasters we're able to get those resources to the local disaster even when they're spread out throughout the state," Chapman said.

And then there's the mobile field hospitals. Canton says he can't imagine the state giving them up.

"There's no question that mobile hospitals will be needed after a major earthquake, so to eliminate those, a capacity that we already have in hopes that we will find something in the future when it's needed, really seems a case of a penny wise and a pound foolish," Canton said.

He says it is not if, but when these boxes will have to be opened, and it makes more sense for the state to find a way to pay the $1.7 million for maintenance and storage.

"We have to look at cuts. So there is no easy solutions to any of these things," Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said. DeSaulnier chairs the budget subcommittee on health and human services. He doesn't see the Legislature OK'ing funds for the hospitals with the budget crisis they face. So when a scene like this plays out for real, the senator says not funding these assets would endanger Californians. "It's a risk that if you had these facilities in good time and you have a large earthquake it would save lives. If we have it right now we'll lose lives because we don't have this kind of resources to put out in the community."

One option the state is looking at is having smaller mobile field hospitals -- maybe going from the 200 beds to 50 beds, anything to keep some of these life-saving assets in the state in case of an emergency. DeSaulnier told us he would take a second look at the hospitals, but would not guarantee they would be funded. A June 30 deadline looms and we will keep you posted.


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