Bill Would Make Power Restoration at Hospitals a Priority

Assembly panel votes out measure to ensure that healthcare facilities are back in business as soon as possible after an extreme storm

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic)
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there were 251 healthcare facilities left without power, including 38 acute-care hospitals — in some cases, for a week or more. All told, one-third of nursing care and assisted living facilities lost electricity, the average outage lasting five days, according to industry officials.

New Jersey electric utilities say they give priority to restoring power to those facilities during extreme weather, but apparently that was not always the case in the fall of 2012, according to Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset).

“Some of the hospitals were forgotten when there were power restorations,’’ said Diane Anderson, director of emergency operations for the New Jersey Hospital Association. In one case, a hospital in Ocean County was still without power when the rest of the community already had electricity restored, she said.

To remedy that problem, a bill, A-1071, as begun moving through the Legislature to help ensure hospitals and other critical facilities get power back as soon as possible during such emergencies. “Supporting this bill would ensure this won’t happen again,’’ Anderson said.

The legislation is the latest initiative proposed by policymakers to make critical facilities such as hospitals and water treatment plants more resilient in the event of future storms. The favored approach is to build small, but more efficient power plants at those facilities that would continue to operate, even when the rest of the power grid goes down.

Unfortunately, the Legislature and Christie administration have failed to come up with a consensus on how to fund those projects, dubbed combined heat and power (CHP) plants — even though it is a strategy both seem to endorse and one recommended by the state’s Energy Master Plan.

In the meantime, lawmakers are working to deal with the issue in other ways.

“If any good came out of Hurricane Sandy, it was the lessons we learned in the aftermath as we attempted to resume a sense of normalcy throughout our state,’’ said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), the sponsor of the legislation giving healthcare facilities a priority when it comes to restoration efforts. It cleared the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee last week in a bipartisan vote. It now heads to the Assembly.

Schaer, like Anderson, noted that hospitals are already equipped with backup generators, but they can only last so long, while some hospitals and other healthcare facilities were off-grid for days.

At some nursing homes and assisted-care residences, generators ran out of the diesel fuel needed to run the backup systems, according to John Indyk, a lobbyist for the Health Care Association of New Jersey. In the wake of the massive flooding from the storm, big refineries were shut down, causing fuel shortages throughout New Jersey.

“It’s a common sense measure that should be passed,’’ Indyk told the Assembly panel on Thursday.

Beyond the benefits of providing quality healthcare to patients, Anderson noted that hospitals and other facilities are viewed by the community as beacons during storms — a place where they can shelter, get hot meals, and recharge their cellphones.

Under the bill, the state Board of Public Utilities would be required to adopt rules and regulations requiring the state’s four electric utilities to give hospitals, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes priority consideration for power restoration after an extended outage following a major storm.

“With enough foresight and planning before the next emergency, we can make sure the proper preparations are made to make hospitals, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes a priority for power restoration, while still ensuring that the general safety of the public is protected,’’ Schaer said.

The bill notes that power restoration to those vulnerable facilities should not divert efforts to restore electricity where needed to maintain overall public safety.