MIAMI — The U.S. military has halted flights carrying Haitian earthquake victims to the United States because of an apparent cost dispute, though a doctor warned that some injured patients faced imminent death if the flights don’t resume.
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.
However, Dr. Barth Green, a doctor involved in the relief effort in Port-au-Prince, warned that his patients needed to get to better hospitals.
“We have 100 critically ill patients who will die in the next day or two if we don’t Medevac them,” said Green, chairman of the University of Miami’s Global Institute for Community Health and Development.
At a temporary field hospital at Haiti’s international airport, set up with donations to Green’s institute, two men had already died of tetanus. Doctors said 5-year-old Betina Joseph faced a similar fate within 24 hours unless evacuated to a U.S. hospital where she can be put on a respirator.
The girl — infected with tetanus through a two-inch cut on her thigh — weakly shooed a fly buzzing around her face as her mother caressed her corn rows, apparently unaware that getting the girl out could mean life or death.
“If we can’t save her by getting her out right away, we won’t save her,” said Dr. David Pitcher, one of 34 surgeons staffing the field hospital.
There were some states that would not accept patients who needed care in the U.S., and they could not be transported without a hospital to accept them, Aandahl said.
Aandahl declined to specify which states declined to accept patients, and he referred further questions to a Pentagon press office, where an after-hours answering service could not accept incoming messages today.
Florida officials said today that they were not aware of any hospital in the state refusing to take in the patients. However, in a letter Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the 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 noted the state’s health care system was already stretched by the winter tourism season and annual “snowbird” migration. South Florida hospitals also were preparing for a surge in visitors for the NFL Pro Bowl on Sunday and the Super Bowl next weekend.
While in Tampa on today, Crist said Florida’s Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon estimated the state’s costs had reached about $7 million.
Poor coordination and limited resources, not medical care costs, drove the governor’s request, said John Cherry, spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management.
“We’ve made it clear that (the cost) is an issue we’ll deal with down the road,” he said.
Health officials say the medical flights landed without any advance notice, and the poor coordination may be keeping some survivors from getting the help they need, Cherry said. He cited the case of a burn victim flown earlier this week into Tampa, which is not equipped to treat those injuries.
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.
As of Friday, the Florida Department of Health reported that 526 patients had been received at hospitals in the state: more than 400 in South Florida, 76 in the Orlando area and 37 in the Tampa area. Four burn victims were transported to North Carolina, Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said.
“Recently we learned that federal planning is under way to move between 30-50 critically ill patients per day for an indefinite period of time,” Crist told Sebelius, saying Florida could not handle so many patients.
More than 135 patients remain hospitalized in South Florida, said Jeanne Eckes-Roper, the health and medical chairwoman of a state domestic security task force for the South Florida region.
She requested on Monday that new patients be taken elsewhere in Florida.
“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 only about a dozen medical evacuations by the U.S. military after the Jan. 12 earthquake, he said.