July 7, 2001, 12:24AM
Area med centers get federal officials' vow for money to rebuild
By ALAN BERNSTEIN
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson made an open-ended pledge Friday to help rebuild flood-damaged research programs at the Texas Medical Center.
Thompson offered federal financial aid after touring portions of Memorial Hermann Hospital, The Methodist Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine that were ravaged by the remnants of Tropical Storm Allison on June 9.
"Oh God," Thompson said when Memorial Hermann officials showed him the now-empty floor where floodwaters destroyed $60 million worth of cardiac diagnostic equipment.
"It's sort of heartbreaking to go through and see the tremendous loss," he said at a press conference later.
The National Institutes of Health, which is under Thompson's department, provides about $400 million in funding for medical research in the Houston area.
Thompson said he is modifying his agency's rules to make it easier for Medical Center facilities to get additional government money to restore their research efforts.
For instance, HHS will pay for hospitals to lease electronic microscopes during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 31, before providing funding in the next fiscal year to purchase replacement equipment. And the agency will be flexible about paying Medicare and Medicaid claims that would have relied on medical records that were damaged in the floods.
With heart surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey standing nearby, Thompson said much of the research that led to the implantation of a self-contained artificial heart into a man in Louisville, Ky., this week was done at medical institutions here.
"That kind of research has got to continue and the sooner the better," Thompson said.
Officials at Baylor,whose flood losses included thousands of laboratory mice that had been injected with viruses, told Thompson the damage set back their research several years, but most of it can be recreated.
The former Wisconsin governor said there was no way to estimate how much his agency would need to provide. Public funding would be added to aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is also helping to defray some of the $2 billion in damage at the Medical Center.
After accompanying Thompson on the tour, which required the officials to wear protective clothing and goggles to avoid contamination in flooded sections of Baylor medical school, three Houston-area congressmen said Congress will provide the extra money federal agencies need to help the Medical Center. Bush administration officials already are talking about asking for a special infusion of $1.6 billion to help all of the states hit by Allison.
"The appropriations process isn't over until it's over," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the Republican from Sugar Land, said with a grin, indicating that he can use his leadership position to make sure the money comes through for his home area.
U.S. Reps. Ken Bentsen Jr., D-Houston, and Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, praised the federal government's response to the Medical Center's needs.
None of the government officials addressed the Medical Center's flood control efforts before the storm and plans for avoiding floods in the future.
But Thompson said as the medical institutions rebuild their research programs, they can take advantage of federal aid to improve their design.
"These kinds of decisions can make this even better than it was once was," he said. "There is some good that is going to come out of it."
Some of the facilities shut down by the flood posted their re-opening schedules Friday.
The University of Texas Medical School at Houston said it will resume normal business operations Monday.
Faculty and staff will begin re-establishing offices over the weekend, even though the basement, ground floors and the John Freeman Building remain closed for renovations, and not all elevators are functioning. Access to either building is through the breezeway entrance closest to the school's southeast side entrance facing Webber Plaza.
The medical school suffered more than $205 million in flood damage. The rest of the health science center was unharmed.
Memorial Hermann Hospital, which transferred all of its patients after floodwaters crippled electrical, water and telephone services, plans to start admitting patients July 17 and re-open its emergency room, trauma center, intensive care units and operating rooms.
Kindred Hospital Houston, which is sandwiched between Medical Center buildings at 6441 Main but is not affiliated with the Medical Center, also evacuated all patients after the flood. It plans to accept patients in about two weeks, according to a recorded message that answers telephone calls.
Chronicle reporter Todd Ackerman contributed to this report