NPR logo U.S. Halts Medevac Flights From Haiti

Latin America

U.S. Halts Medevac Flights From Haiti

U.S. Navy and Air Force personnel prepared to airlift a girl with head injuries to an offshore medical facility last week in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The U.S. military says it halted flights carrying Haitian earthquake victims to the United States on Wednesday. Gregory Bull/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Gregory Bull/AP

The United States military has halted medical evacuation flights from Haiti to the U.S.

Military planes have been flying some wounded earthquake victims to be treated in U.S. hospitals, but that practice has stopped for now because states have raised questions about the cost of such care.

Doctors with the University of Miami's Global Institute for Community Health and Development say there are 100 critically ill patients at a temporary field hospital at Haiti's international airport who will die in the next couple of days if the flights don't resume.

Two men with tetanus have already died waiting. And doctors say 5-year-old Betina Joseph, also infected with tetanus, could die within 24 hours if she's not air-lifted to a U.S. hospital and put on a respirator.

"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 set up with donations to the institute.

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.

"This past week, some states indicated they are unwilling to approve any more patients for this type of care, so we're not doing these types of flights anymore," Aandahl said Saturday. He declined to specify which states declined to accept those patients.

A White House spokesman says there has been no "policy decision" to suspend medical evacuations from Haiti, but that the military has to find space for the patients before it can resume the flights.

Article continues after sponsorship

The spokesman says the administration is working with states to reimburse some of the costs to treat earthquake victims.

Aandahl said the military can't fly medical evacuation missions without hospitals to accept the patients. However, he said, the U.S. continues to have what he called a "robust medical presence" on the island and offshore, "so nobody is going without treatment."

Florida has asked the Department of Health and Human Services to help the state defray the cost of treating earthquake victims.

A spokesman for Crist said Saturday that he was not aware of any hospital in Florida refusing patients. However, in a letter Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the governor said that "Florida's health care system is quickly reaching saturation, especially in the area of high-level trauma care." The letter stated that nearly 500 Haitian earthquake victims already were being treated in Florida hospitals.

Crist also asked Sebelius to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which is typically used in domestic disasters and pays for victims' care. His letter did indicate how much victims' care was costing Florida, though he said the state's health care system was already stretched by the winter tourism season and annual "snowbird" migration.

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.

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," Aandahl said. "Probably a dozen, maybe less, maybe more, but not a large number."

NPR's David Schaper and The Associated Press contributed to this report

Related NPR Stories