U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has declared a public health emergency in Florida in advance of Hurricane Michael’s arrival, mobilizing federal medical assistance and opening the door for federally supported health care providers and suppliers to have greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs.

The declaration, which came late Tuesday follows the formal federal emergency declaration by President Donald Trump.

“Hurricane Michael poses a significant threat to the health and safety of those in its path,” Azar stated in a news release. “These actions help ensure that our fellow Americans who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need.”

The department already has staged about 125 professionals from the National Disaster Medical System and an incident management team, along with caches of medical equipment in Mobile, Ala., and Jacksonville, to quickly help state and local authorities respond.

Hurricane Michael, now an extremely dangerous category 4 storm, was 90 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola with 145 mph winds, at 7 a.m. Wednesday, expected to make landfall Wednesday afternoon south of Panama City.

In addition, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services coordinated to provide information to Florida health officials on the number of Medicare beneficiaries who rely on dialysis or use special medical equipment at home and the type of equipment, such as oxygen concentrators, in the potentially impacted areas. With this information, health and emergency management agencies can respond better, particularly after power outages, to save lives.

CMS also activated the Kidney Community Emergency Response Program to monitor dialysis access and needs of these facilities after the hurricane makes landfall. Through a CMS contract, this program provides technical assistance to End Stage Renal Disease Networks, kidney organizations, and other groups to ensure timely and efficient disaster preparedness, response and recovery for the kidney community.

To assist residents in the impacted area in coping with the stress of the disasters, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration activated the Disaster Distress Helpline. The helpline provides immediate crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.

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