The team had been briefed on what to expect well before their two chartered Boeing 737s touched down near San Juan. They’d heard the stories of the challenges facing the hospital there, on a bankrupt island in the wake of two of the worst hurricanes in its history.
It wasn’t enough to prepare them for what they found.
Patient dialysis times had been cut in half to conserve what little power could be salvaged, and that very shortage of electricity was making it nearly impossible to charge ventilators and refill oxygen tanks.
The team set about taking what stock they could of the situation – what was available, what was needed. And what should be done first.
“Our goal is for this to be a long-term mission,” said Tim Hodges, chief strategy officer for CareOne, who along with sister company InnovaCare Health dispatched 20 New Jersey-based health care professionals to the stricken island in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria. “(It’s) the first day with feet on the ground doing the assessment.”
Indeed, that first week in October was for visiting health care providers one of getting one’s bearings, while attempting to render aid in the most efficient way possible.
For members of InnovaCare, the rapid response wasn’t a matter of “if,” but “when.”
“The people of Puerto Rico – including thousands of our employees and hundreds of thousands of our members – are experiencing devastation and destruction like they have never seen,” said Penelope Kokkinides, who was recently appointed Chief Administrative Officer at InnovaCare. “Although we know an enormous amount of work lies ahead, it has been uplifting to see what a difference our organization is already making. The response from the entire organization speaks to the supportive, accountable culture that defines (us).”
Indeed, it’s something the organization takes personally – New Jersey possesses the third-highest population of Puerto Ricans in the United States. InnovaCare has maintained its presence in the island’s recovery efforts since the second storm made her catastrophic landfall. Some of the company’s actions have become near-legendary in the nine months that have passed since Maria.
Recargate remains a famous one.
Initially intended as a centrally located area for storm-affected residents to charge electronic devices, the rundown storefront – through some inventiveness on the part of volunteers – was transformed in a week’s time into an improvised clinic. More than one island resident had a story to tell about a family member receiving an emergency refill of an insulin prescription, or last-minute dosage of crucial heart medication.
Recargate was developed by one of Puerto Rico’s larger Medicare Advantage health plans, called Medicare y Mucho Mas, a subsidiary of InnovaCare. And so the center that began as a charging station became something much larger, a symbol in San Juan of unity and local resilience. About 40,000 people have visited Recargate since November.
The center has been but one example of InnovaCare Health’s sustained interest in the island’s recovery. Which is not to say easy answers have been abundant. If one asks Dr. Richard Shinto, InnovaCare CEO, Puerto Rico had the odds stacked against her even before the storm from an economic and housing standpoint. Maria has given the stricken island the rest.
“If they go home and they can’t get that diet or have no place to stay or have no way to get the medication that was prescribed, everything you’ve done in the clinic has been lost,” said Shinto.
Efforts toward improving that infrastructure have been aided by the company’s Caminamos Juntos (We Walk Together) initiative, in response to millions of residents who still lack power and sufficient medical resources.
“As one of the leading healthcare organizations on the island, we feel a great responsibility to continue providing necessary healthcare services here,” said Waldemar C. Rios Alvarez, Chief Medical Officer of Puerto Rico, an InnovaCare subsidiary which provides administrative support to medical groups there. “While we are doing what we can to address the immediate needs of Puerto Rico’s medical community today, our vision for rebuilding the island and continuing to be a trusted partner for the people of Puerto Rico extends far into the future.”
The company’s ties to Puerto Rico date farther back than last fall; InnovaCare employs thousands with roots tracing back to the island. A half year before Maria and her sister Irma had even begun to form in the Atlantic, Innovacare Chief Admin Kokkinides met with the President himself in the Roosevelt room of the White House to discuss the state of health care and health care coverage on the island.
During the roundtable discussion, Kokkinides spoke on the importance of increased funding for Medicare Advantage within Puerto Rico. In what was perhaps a grim forecast of things to come, she warned of a trend that has persisted since 2011 – increased cuts to the program for Puerto Rico resulting in approximate annual decreases of $1 billion.
The meeting with the country’s top leaders proved an important win for health care in Puerto Rico, as CMS Administrators soon after implemented favorable adjustments to the island’s coverage system. Since Maria, it’s caused some to shudder as they imagine what might have been – given the unavoidable confusion and lack of order on the island – if at least someone hadn’t been thinking ahead.
Back on the island, rebuilding and trusting the process are two commonly cited phrases. Since the initial rush in response to Maria’s landfall, InnovaCare in months since have set up around 30 more mobile clinics across the stricken island. Each features a primary care physician or physician specialist, and most have on-site pharmacists who can fill critical prescriptions.
For Jamie Soto, who had only been home months after retiring from the Army before Maria hit, the goodness of strangers is what shines through amid the damage. “It’s crazy, man,” he said via cell phone, on his way to a mobile clinic in San Juan. His 4 year-old daughter had been suffering from a toothache since April. “It is a tragedy. You cannot call it anything else. But it is a (form of) love when you know there’s someone out there, maybe even back in another state and looking out for you, even if you’ve never met before. In that, we’re blessed.”