The Use of Federal Data for a Beneficial Purpose

July 3rd, 2013 by CHHS RAs

By Joella Roland, CHHS Extern

With the debate over the collection of federal data from internet giants like Facebook and Google fresh in everyone’s mind, it is easy to become disenchanted with the idea of the government monitoring and storing personal information. However, federal data has recently been used for a beneficial purpose in the city of New Orleans.

In mid-June, city officials and the United States Department of Health and Human Services took three days to pilot a project harnessing existing Medicare data as a way to locate residents who are dependent on life support systems requiring electricity, such as ventilators.  The pre-emptive measure enabled teams to seek out such individuals and discuss the benefits of being added to the city’s “special needs” registry, a list of New Orleanians who need specialized assistance during emergencies such as power outages.

The exercise was developed as an alternative to having officials go “door-to-door” during power outages to identify people with medical needs, as was done in the wake of Hurricane Isaac in August of 2012. If the New Orleans exercise is deemed to be a success, the model could be used in other locations across the United States as an efficient way to use federal data to locate electricity-dependent individuals before and after a disaster. The model could also be extended for other uses of Medicare data, such as identifying wheelchairs-bound residents in the event of evacuations.

Thus far, results from the program look like it could be a success. June 14, 2013, federal Medicare data showed around 600 people using electricity-dependent equipment at home, and New Orleans’ records showed the majority of addresses appear valid. Only fifteen of the 600 people were already on the special needs registry.

Cities lack of preparation for handling the needs of vulnerable populations during emergencies has recently come under fire. In May of 2013, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, on behalf of the United States Department of Justice, filed a statement of interest supporting the position that the city of New York discriminated against people with disabilities for failing to adequately address their needs during hurricanes Irene and Sandy. One of the problems that lawyers for the people with special needs will highlight is the city’s failure to properly locate and rescue people who were disabled and trapped in tall buildings after the power went out.

A 2007 Hastings Center study found that identifying vulnerable populations for emergency preparedness was a weakness in thirty-seven disaster-preparedness plans across the world, and that fewer than twenty-five plans considered the needs of one or more economically or socially disadvantaged groups.

Just last year, right here in Maryland, CHHS assisted the Baltimore Urban Area Work Group Functional Needs and Citizen Involvement Subcommittee with their functional/special needs inclusion planning.  Staff identified gaps in current emergency response when it comes to assisting this population before, during and after a disaster, and worked with emergency managers, local health department officials, those responsible for setting up shelters, and members of the community to begin improving Maryland’s emergency preparedness services for those with functional needs.

While the full results of New Orleans’ emergency preparedness exercise are unknown, this solution looks like a promising way of incorporating federal data to develop a much-needed solution. 

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