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U.S. to restart military flights of Haiti patients

The White House said Sunday that military flights of critically injured Haitians will resume soon after assurances were given that hospitals have the capacity to deal with them.
Betina Joseph, Denise Exima
Betina Joseph, 5, lies with her mother, Denise Exima, at a field hospital at Haiti's airport in Port-au-Prince on Saturday. Doctors said that tetanus developed in Betina's leg wound and that she might die if not evacuated and treated soon. A private relief group flew her and two others out Sunday.Ariana Cubillos / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Following the suspension of U.S. military flights for critically injured Haitians, the White House said Sunday that those will resume soon after assurances were given that hospitals have the capacity to deal with them.

"Having received assurances that additional capacity exists both here and among our international partners, we determined that we can resume these critical flights," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

The U.S. military medevac flights had been halted since Wednesday over a dispute over where the patients would be treated and the costs of their care.

The statement, issued Sunday afternoon, stated the flights would resume within 12 hours.

Exactly what led to the suspension of medical evacuation flights remains unclear. Military officials said some states refused to take patients.

Florida officials say none were ever turned away, though Gov. Charlie Crist had sent a letter Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying the state's hospitals were reaching a saturation point.

Florida: Costs top $7 million
The letter also asked for federal help paying for patient expenses — a request Crist on Sunday said could have been misinterpreted. He also said federal officials have indicated he would receive help covering the costs, totaling more than $7 million.

The White House has said hospitals were running out of space and officials were working to increase capacity in Haiti and the U.S., as well as aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship.

Col. Rick Kaiser said Sunday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been asked to build a 250-bed tent hospital in Haiti to relieve pressure on the Comfort and on Haitian facilities where earthquake victims are being treated under tarpaulins.

Several hospitals in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince were damaged or destroyed in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten said about 435 earthquake victims had been evacuated before the suspension, and that he was "sure the Department of Defense wants to do the right thing."

Individual hospitals were still able to arrange private medical flights — such as one Sunday that brought three critically ill children to a hospital in Philadelphia.

Doctors have said the makeshift facilities in Haiti aren't equipped to treat such critical conditions and warn that patients in similar condition could die if they aren't treated in U.S. hospitals.

Flights came unannounced, Florida says
Crist also has asked Sebelius for better coordination of the evacuations.

The state had been relying on air traffic controllers at Miami International Airport to relay information about the evacuations because the U.S. military flights headed to the state without notice, David Halstead, the Florida Division of Emergency Management's interim director, said Sunday.

"The governor's request is, 'Just tell us a plan,'" Halstead said.