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The Takeaway: Nursing Homes Ill-Prepared For Natural Disasters

Emergency Plans Lack Specifics: Will your loved-one's nursing home be ready should emergency arise? Don't count on it: A recent government investigation found many nursing homes-even those in disaster-prone areas-are ill-prepared for natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

Seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina showed us how vulnerable nursing home patients can be during natural disasters (according to the Houston Chronicle, at least 139 nursing home residents died during the floods or their aftermath). Yet according to the Health and Human Services Department report, released today, serious shortcomings in nursing home emergency planning persist at facilities around the country.

We identified many of the same gaps in nursing home preparedness and response," HHS investigators wrote in the report.

The federal government does require nursing homes to draw up emergency preparedness plans, but guidelines are vague. And thus many emergency plans lack specific steps or procedures, such as how to notify patients' relatives or how to send medication lists with residents during evacuation. Of the 24 nursing homes selected for investigative visits (each of which had been affected by a natural disaster between 2007-2010) all but one lacked instructions for how to handle a resident's illness or death during an evacuation. Most lacked plans for how food, water, wheelchairs, medical equipment and medication would be transported during an emergency.

At one home, the emergency plan was in several boxes, according to the Associated Press; at another one, it was on a legal pad.

The report recommends that Medicare and Medicaid add specific emergency planning and training steps to requirements for nursing home disaster plans. Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner said she agreed with the recommendation, but gave no timetable for carrying it out.

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Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

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