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Health Care Supervisors OK $8.75 million for ERs, bio-terror preparedness



Government: Firefighters Seek Additional Funds for Bioterrorism Training

Some local health care leaders, doctors and firefighters are scrambling to offer ideas on how to spend more than $6 million that remains from the county’s share of a nationwide tobacco lawsuit settlement.

On Oct. 16, the county Board of Supervisors allocated $8.75 million of the $15 million in total funding to improve emergency medical care and bioterrorism preparedness in San Diego, leaving it up to emergency medical providers to help divvy up the rest.

Supervisors said they would meet in 90 days to allocate the remaining $6.25 million.

Steven Escoboza, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said he plans to submit his requests next week after meeting with local hospital executives.

So far, the tally stands like this: Supervisors allotted $3 million toward upgrading the county’s emergency computer system; $1.5 million for anti-bioterrorism training and to buy laboratory equipment; $1 million to beef up the county’s trauma and emergency care system; $250,000 to buy defibrillators; and another $3 million in reserves for “unanticipated emergency needs.”

Escoboza said the remaining $6.25 million won’t completely fix the county’s lagging emergency care programs, but will help address certain critical needs.

He speculated hospitals will propose purchases of costly equipment and medications and in some form address the critical shortage of specialists, nurses and other personnel in emergency departments.


Emergency Rooms Impacted

One of the county’s biggest problems is the high number of uninsured people seeking non-emergency care in emergency rooms.

Federal law requires emergency rooms to provide care for everybody, but hospitals must pay for those who can’t, Escoboza said.

Gloria Chadwick, president of the board of directors for the Grossmont Healthcare District, said the problem is especially acute in East County.

“East County was very much impacted by the closure of Scripps (Scripps Memorial Hospital East County closed in June 2000),” said Chadwick, a registered nurse.

The number of annual emergency room visits at Grossmont Hospital skyrocketed to 70,000 patients so far in 2001 from 47,000 patients in 2000, said Michele Tarbet, CEO of the 450-bed hospital, which is part of Sharp Healthcare.

County Firefighters ‘Unprepared’

The facility was built in 1977 to handle 30,000 emergency visits a year, she said.

Tarbet hopes supervisors will provide funding for a planned $55 million facility.

Dan McKenna, chief of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District, however, said the district’s 150 firefighters are “extremely concerned” about a bioterrorism attack.

“We, as the fire service, and I can speak broadly for East County and for perhaps a lot of other areas, are unprepared for a biological event,” McKenna told supervisors.

He has received no response yet to his request for $500,000 from the International Association of Firefighters in Washington, D.C., for training and equipment in case of a biological attack.

He hopes that will not be the case with the supervisors.

McKenna said he’ll work with the county’s 25 fire departments on a proposal, which he wants to submit within 30 days.

Items likely to be on the list are face masks, protective gear, decontamination equipment and money to train firefighters to identify a biological threat, spot symptoms of exposure, isolate and decontaminate areas.

Escoboza said the key to preparedness is for all emergency units to work together.

“We looked in the past at police, firefighters and ambulances as a separate activity from hospitals,” he said.

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