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Rebuilding Lives: Helping Sandy Survivors Deal with Depression

Federally funded initiative in NJ focuses on long-term emotional toll of devastating storm.

sandy rebuild
Credit: @scottgurian
Much of the Jersey Shore's infrastructure has been rebuilt following Hurricane Sandy. A $1.5 million federal grant for mental-health screening will help those still rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of the storm.

While much has been done to mend the physical damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, a federally funded program aims to help older residents cope with the harder-to-see emotional toll of the devastating storm.

People who live in some of the communities hit hardest by Sandy will be screened and treated for depression under the $1.5 million grant.

New Jersey-based Healthcare Quality Strategies Inc. (HQSI) recently received the funding to use Medicare data to identify 10 communities whose residents could benefit most from the screening.

HQSI will work with county offices on aging and hospitals, as well as other government and nonprofit agencies, connecting people with local mental health and behavioral healthcare providers.

“We are trying to see if we can identify areas that are at higher risk for people with depression,” said Ya-ping Su, director of research and analytics for the organization, which has had a contract with Medicare since 1984 to help New Jersey healthcare providers improve the quality of their treatment.

Su said that the grant is timely, considering that people frequently don’t experience depression until six to 12 months after a disaster. The project began in July and will last until July 31, 2014.

HQSI officials will be combing through Medicare data, focusing on areas with higher instances of senior residents with chronic illnesses and previous behavioral health issues. The organization will coordinate with local providers to provide treatment to those with depression.

The organization also plans to work with healthcare providers to assess how the storm affected patients who had to move due to emergency evacuations and extended power outages.

“It’s a very unique project because it’s directly responding to Hurricane Sandy and how it might have impacted older adults,” Su said.

The grant allows more people to undergo screenings for depression, which were first approved in 2011 for coverage by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

CMS officials said the initiative is one of several of what are known as Special Innovations Projects that could expand to other states if they’re successful.

“Early intervention will improve the quality of life for Medicare beneficiaries and potentially reduce long-term health expenditures for the Medicare program” by treating depression before it contributes to chronic health problems, according to a CMS statement.

The program earned praise from a college professor who has worked on post-disaster interventions in other states.

“The fact that there are barriers to care gets in the way of getting people the treatment that they need,” said Jessica Hamblen of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Hamblen also said that using community-level data makes sense, since entire communities were affected by the storm.

“Looking at communities and then identifying people within communities that need help is a good strategy,” Hamblen said. “We know that many people won’t come in on their own and those barriers to care are complicated.”

Those who may be difficult to reach include people who believe they will get better on their own, those who don’t want to use resources that could benefit others and people who don’t think treatment will work.

“Fewer people will seek help than meet the criteria for need,” said Hamblen, who developed an approach to post-disaster intervention that was used in New York after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and also responded to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Hamblen said the project also provides an opportunity to teach people about post-traumatic symptoms.

HQSI CEO Martin P. Margolies said in a statement that the project will also help officials learn how to improve their responses to future disasters.

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