Developing Health Systems Surge Capacity: Community Efforts in Jeopardy

Center for Studying Health System Change
Research Brief No. 5
June 2008
Felland, L.E., Katz, A., Liebhaber, A., and G.R. Cohen

Since Sept. 11, 2001, communities have responded to the federal call to enhance health care surge capacity—the space, supplies, staffing and management structure to care for many injured or ill people during a terrorist attack, natural disaster or infectious disease pandemic. Communities with varied experience handling emergencies are building broad surge capacity, including transportation, communication, hospital care and handling mass fatalities, according to a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC). Communities rely on federal funding to help coordinate and plan across agencies and providers, conduct training and drills, recruit volunteers, and purchase equipment and stockpile supplies. The current federal focus on pandemic influenza has helped prepare for all types of emergencies, although at times communities struggle with fragmented and restrictive funding requirements.

Despite progress, communities face an inherent tension in developing surge capacity. The need for surge capacity has increased at the same time that daily health care capacity has become strained, largely because of workforce shortages, reimbursement pressures and growing numbers of uninsured people. Payers do not subsidize hospitals to keep beds empty for an emergency, nor is it practical for trained staff to sit idle until a disaster hits. To compensate, communities are trying to develop surge capacity in a manner that supports day-to-day activities and stretches existing resources in an emergency. Many of these efforts—including integrating outpatient providers, expanding staff roles and adapting standards of care during a large-scale emergency—require greater coordination, guidance and policy support. As time passes since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, federal funding for surge capacity has waned, and communities are concerned about losing surge capacity they have built.

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