- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 30, 2010

MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. military has halted flights carrying Haitian earthquake victims to the United States, apparently in a dispute over medical care costs.

The evacuations were temporarily suspended Wednesday, said Capt. Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command. The flights were halted a day after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist asked the federal government to help pay for care.

“There were some critical cases that were recommended stateside facility care or follow-up care,” Aandahl said Saturday. “As I understand it, there were some states that were unwilling to approve transportation for that follow-up. We can’t fly anyone without an accepting hospital on the other end.”

The story was first reported by the New York Times.

Aandahl declined to specify which states declined to accept those patients, and he referred further questions to a Pentagon press office, where an after-hours answering service could not accept incoming messages Saturday.

Florida officials said Saturday that they were not aware of any hospital in Florida refusing to take in the patients. However, in a letter Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Republican governor said “Florida’s health care system is quickly reaching saturation, especially in the area of high level trauma care.”

Crist asked Sebelius to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which is typically used in domestic disasters and pays for victims’ care. His letter did not indicate how much victims’ care was costing Florida, though he noted the state’s health care system was already stretched by the winter tourism season and annual “snowbird” migration of seniors from northern states and Canada.

In a statement Saturday, Crist said Florida has not stopped helping earthquake victims, noting at least 60 Haitian orphans arrived Friday night at Miami International Airport.

Those children already were being adopted by families in Utah, said Sterling Ivey, the governor’s spokesman.

Crist said his state remains committed to caring for injured earthquake victims and reuniting families, though he was reaching out to other states to help care for them as well.

Crist’s letter to Sebelius outlined Florida’s relief efforts, including 436 patients admitted to hospitals. Nearly all those patients suffered multiple traumas, and a quarter of them were under the age of 18, the governor wrote.

“Recently we learned that federal planning is underway to move between 30-50 critically ill patients per day for an indefinite period of time,” Crist told Sebelius, saying Florida could not handle such an endeavor.

More than 400 U.S. citizens, Haitian nationals and other foreign nationals have been treated at South Florida hospitals since the Jan. 12 earthquake, including 136 who remain hospitalized, said Jeanne Eckes-Roper, the health and medical chairwoman of a state domestic security task force for the South Florida region.

About 75 additional patients were flown to Tampa area hospitals after she requested on Monday that new patients be taken elsewhere in Florida, Eckes-Roper said.

“We had to make sure we did not overwhelm our capacity,” she said. “We stand ready to take whatever the government wants to give us.”

Aandahl said no evacuation requests have been made by U.S. military medical facilities in Haiti, including the hospital ship the USNS Comfort, since the flights were suspended Wednesday.

There were limited medical evacuations by the U.S. military after the Jan. 12 earthquake, he said.

“It wasn’t a lot of flights — probably a dozen, maybe less, maybe more, but not a large number,” Aandahl said.

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