Puerto Rican evacuees’ medical needs include mental health services

A family stand next to their belongings, in front of the remains of their home destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo)

A family stand next to their belongings, in front of the remains of their home destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo)

About 2,000 evacuees have made Pennsylvania home after hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands upended their lives there. The local medical community has had to act quickly to serve the new residents.

When people just arrived in Philadelphia, in the days and week after the September hurricanes, they needed to address acute conditions and to replace medications. Often they came with just empty medicine bottles, and no medical records, said Brenda Robles Cooke, Chief Operating Officer of the Maria de los Santos Health Center on Allegheny Ave. in North Philadelphia.

Then, said physician Manish Garg, Director of Global Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, doctors started seeing patients with infectious diseases, like skin and lung infections.

Now, months out, it’s chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease, and mental health needs. “Folks are coming with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, with anxiety. Certainly after you’ve had a major hurricane come through and you’ve lost housing, you’ve lost family, you’ve lost medications and resources, these mental health needs are critical,” Garg said.

Health centers have also had to stay flexible with figuring out health coverage. Many evacuees came uninsured or with plans that didn’t transfer smoothly from the island to the mainland.

Under the Affordable Care Act, a special enrollment period for those affected by the hurricanes has been extended through March 31.

Those who stayed in Puerto Rico are dealing with long wait times to get treatment for routine conditions, and mental health needs have grown. Next week, Temple is sending a team of medical students and physicians to assist local doctors.

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