Gregory Bull  /  AP
U.S. Navy and Air Force personnel get ready to airlift a girl with head injuries to an offshore medical facility in Port-au-Prince in a Jan. 24 photo.
updated 1/30/2010 8:59:26 PM ET 2010-01-31T01:59:26

The U.S. military has halted flights carrying Haitian earthquake victims to the United States because of an apparent dispute over where seriously injured patients should be taken for treatment.

An American doctor treating victims in Port-au-Prince warned that at least 100 critically ill patients needed to get to better hospitals or they could die, while the U.S. government said it was working to expand hospital capacity in both Haiti and in the U.S.

It was unclear exactly what prompted the decision Wednesday by the U.S. military to suspend the flights or when the suspension would end. Military officials said some states were refusing to take patients, though they wouldn't say which states. The halt was first reported by The New York Times.

"There has been no policy decision by anyone to suspend evacuee flights," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "This situation arose as we started to run out of room."

The halt came one day after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist wrote a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, warning that "Florida's health care system is quickly reaching saturation, especially in the area of high level trauma care."

But officials in Crist's office said they didn't know of any Florida hospitals turning away patients. He asked Sebelius to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which is typically used in domestic disasters and pays for victims' care.

Poor coordination and limited resources, not costs, drove the governor's request, said John Cherry, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

"We've made it clear that (the cost) is an issue we'll deal with down the road," he said.

State health officials say some medical flights landed in Florida without any advance notice, and the poor coordination may be keeping some survivors from getting the help they need, Cherry said. He cited the case of a burn victim flown earlier this week into Tampa, which is not equipped to treat those injuries.

Dying of tetanus
Meanwhile on the ground in Haiti, Dr. Barth Green, a doctor involved in the relief effort in Port-au-Prince, warned that his patients needed to get to better hospitals.

"We have 100 critically ill patients who will die in the next day or two if we don't Medevac them," said Green, chairman of the University of Miami's Global Institute for Community Health and Development.

Civilian flights have not been stopped, but Green said he was relying on U.S. military flights to fly out patients because they are larger and better equipped to handle injured patients.

At a temporary field hospital at Haiti's international airport, set up with donations to Green's institute, two men had already died of tetanus. Doctors said 5-year-old Betina Joseph faced a similar fate within 24 hours unless she is evacuated to a U.S. hospital where she can be put on a respirator.

The girl — infected with tetanus through a two-inch cut on her thigh — weakly shooed a fly buzzing around her face as her mother caressed, apparently unaware that getting the girl out could mean life or death.

"If we can't save her by getting her out right away, we won't save her," said Dr. David Pitcher, one of 34 surgeons staffing the field hospital.

Trying to expand capacity
The White House said federal officials were working with other states and nongovernment aid groups in Haiti to expand hospital capacity so they can make more room for critically injured patients aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship anchored off the coast of Port-au-Prince.

There have already been 435 patients evacuated to the U.S., 18,500 patients treated by HHS personnel on the ground in Haiti, and 19,000 patients treated by the Comfort either on ship or on shore, with 635 patients currently on board the Comfort.

Captain Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command, said no evacuation requests have been made by U.S. military medical facilities in Haiti, including the Comfort, since the flights were suspended Wednesday.

U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, said he did not know who ordered a stop to the evacuations but said it is a problem that should be fixed.

"I'm sure the Department of Defense wants to do the right thing, as do we," he said Saturday in a conference call. "Look, everybody is here working on the ground trying to do the right thing for as many people as possible."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Budget fears imperil medical airlifts from Haiti

  1. Closed captioning of: Budget fears imperil medical airlifts from Haiti

    >> phil lebeau, thanks.

    >>> we turn to haiti right now where the u.s. military airlift has a critical patients to florida is temporarily halted over an issue americans are all too familiar with. the cost of health care . nbc's kerry sanders has our report. 5-year-old bat tina joseph is tieing from tetanus.

    >> you can see how rigid she is.

    >> that's the tetanus?

    >> that's the at the time news.

    >> reporter: doctors give her 24 hours . her organs are shutting down. doctors say upwards of 40 patients are critical. some like bettina need advanced vent later wrnchts is that hospital with all the vent laters for her?

    >> it could could be anywhere, miami, jacksonville, the dominican republic but it can't be here in the tent hospital.

    >> reporter: u.s. flights have been ferrying the most critically injured patients to florida . today those planes left port-au-prince empty, shut down after florida 's governor complained about the cost for treating the patients from haiti overwhelmed the state's budget and florida needed federal money.

    >> we're trying to make sure we don't overburden florida . i think it's important that we don't.

    >> reporter: today a white house spokesman said this was not a funding issue, there was no policy decision to suspend evacuation flights. the administration is working to make sure flights resume. at the joint university of miami project mehdi share tent hospital angered those who need to get out are not leaving.

    >> so florida doesn't want to do, then the other 49 states need to step up.

    >> reporter: making things worse, today the airport director in port-au-prince refused to release eight pal-the-s of urgent medical supplies.

    >> he wants us to pay tax. we're nonprofit, we're not supposed to.

    >> so what do you call those taxes?

    >> a bribe.

    >> dr. bart green confronted the airport director.

    >> this has never been an issue.

    >> reporter: begrudgingly, errant efficients release and loaded the supplies. today's dispute is a signal the response is now entering phase two, an ugly phase two, just enough haitian government authority to return to getting things done in this country, the way they've always been done with bribes and corruption. with supplies in hand, now the question, will those who are dying make it out? kerry sanders . nbc news, port-au-prince.

    >>> now to the snow and


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