CHN: Hurricane Victims Needing Help Encounter Red Tape, Courtesy of Congress, White House
Fixes to Health Care, Housing, Unemployment Compensation Held Up in Washington
People who have lost homes, jobs, or worse in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita need streamlined access to Medicaid coverage, unemployment insurance, housing, and food. They need jobs. Survivors continue to wait in endless lines for help. They are victims not only of the forces of nature but of three avoidable failures – failure to prevent at least some of the grievous loss, failure to mobilize adequately when disaster struck, and now failure to manage the relief and recovery effectively.
Advocates within the human needs community have been pushing Congress and the White House for legislation that will speed up aid for those who need it most. Some proposals have started to move in Congress that would offer genuine help. While the following list does not deal with every problem created by the disasters, it addresses urgent and basic needs:
Emergency Health Care Relief: Medicaid recipients from the Gulf Coast are being denied care in states across the country because their Medicaid cards are not accepted by their new home states. Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Max Baucus (D-MT) have introduced the Emergency Health Care Relief Act of 2005 (S. 1716) which would provide immediate access to Medicaid for displaced individuals. The legislation:
• Streamlines the application procedures to be responsive to people who have lost the usual documents required for verification.
• Creates Disaster Relief Medicaid, available to Katrina survivors with below-poverty incomes (or twice that level for pregnant women and children) for 5 months, with a possible 5 month extension.
• Fully funds Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) costs in the three affected states through the end of 2006.
• Provides compensation to health care providers serving evacuees and provides support to individuals to allow them to continue private insurance formerly received through their employers.
• Suspends the late enrollment penalty for Medicare Part B and requires a plan to help Katrina survivors to make the transition to the new Medicare prescription drug benefit program.
Senators Grassley and Baucus have urged the full Senate to approve their bill under unanimous consent, but a handful of Republican Senators have objected, saying the $9 billion price tag is too high. (Note that many – if not all – of the Senators objecting to the price tag favor full repeal of the estate tax for millionaires, legislation that would cost $1 trillion over ten years.) Governors and dozens of service provider organizations strongly support the Grassley-Baucus bill.
The White House, however, is opposed. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging states to apply for waivers. Unfortunately, this cumbersome procedure could be deadly for some victims who are dire need of immediate medical care. Only seven states have applied for a waiver at this time, even though FEMA reports that victims of the hurricanes who have registered with the agency are spread all over the United States.
Housing: Even before the hurricanes the United States had a 4.6 million shortage of affordable housing units. An amendment supported by Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) and successfully attached to the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 2862) adds $3.5 billion for streamlined rental assistance through vouchers for Katrina evacuees. All housing costs, including utilities, relocation costs and security deposits, can be covered. The help would reach 350,000 households for six months.
Housing advocates are hoping the amendment survives a conference agreement with the House CJS appropriations bill, or is added to any appropriate legislation likely to move.
On September 23 FEMA and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the creation of two new housing programs for victims in affected areas. Homeowners and renters who were not in HUD-assisted housing prior to the hurricane would receive a flat payment for at least three months (and up to 18 months) to help cover rental costs. The amount for homeowners or renters would be the same, regardless of income or where they had relocated. This program would be run by FEMA.
In the second program, individuals and families who were in HUD-assisted housing or who were homeless in the affected areas prior to the hurricanes would get rental assistance through their new local housing authority. Rental assistance would vary depending on local fair market rents and family size. This assistance (provided through HUD) would be available for up to 18 months.
To address longer term affordable housing needs, advocates are encouraging Congress to add $3.5 billion in additional funds to the HOME program which constructs affordable housing units for the lowest income households. Housing advocates are also urging that any short- and long-term housing plans require that housing be accessible to people with disabilities.
Unemployment Insurance Benefits: Worker advocates have been urging Congress to provide up to 52 weeks of unemployment benefits, increase the minimum unemployment benefit for victims of Katrina, and remove overly restrictive eligibility requirements in the Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program which helps individuals who do not qualify for the regular unemployment insurance program. Legislation moving through the Senate partially addresses these goals. S. 1716 would provide 13 weeks of federal extended unemployment benefits for a total of 39 weeks under the regular unemployment insurance program. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has approved changes to the DUA program that increase the minimum benefit paid and also provide 39 weeks of benefits. In the House, discussions in the House Ways and Means Committee have centered on the same issues, but no official action has yet occurred.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): Even before the hurricanes, low-income families were facing skyrocketing home energy costs. The Department of Energy predicts steep price increases all across the country for heating oil, natural gas, electricity and propane. Up to 81 members of the House have called for doubling the LIHEAP funding in the House Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill (from $2 billion to $4 billion). In FY 2005, LIHEAP’s allocation was $2.2 billion. (See “Congress Approves Stop-Gap Measure to Keep Government Running” in this issue for coverage of a counterproductive short-term cut to LIHEAP.)
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): A provision of the Grassley-Baucus Emergency Health Care Relief Act (see above) ensures that families who require TANF benefits and services as a result of the disaster do not lose access to future assistance. These families will qualify for a Hurricane Katrina Emergency Benefit that will not trigger the time limit or other TANF requirements. Grassley-Baucus also improves upon the funding made available to Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and other states housing evacuees under the recently enacted TANF Emergency Response and Recovery Act of 2005 (H.R. 3672).
Nutrition: Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) have reintroduced the Hurricane Katrina Food Assistance Relief Act of 2005 (S. 1643) that grants USDA greater authority to provide Hurricane Katrina victims with nutrition program assistance. As revised, S. 1643 would give USDA one-year emergency authority to help child nutrition programs–National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) -better meet needs of Hurricane Katrina victims. The emergency authority is modeled after the permanent disaster authority in the Food Stamp Program. S. 1643 also would temporarily lift Food Stamp Program eligibility restrictions on legal immigrants who are victims of Hurricane Katrina. S. 1643 would expand relief for Hurricane Katrina victims through WIC, The Emergency Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Food Stamp Program, including by extending eased food stamp work and resource rules, adjusting the gross income eligibility test, increasing food stamp allotments, funding nutrition program outreach, and providing a nominal 100 percent (rather than nominal 50/50) reimbursement to states for processing Hurricane Katrina cases. Bill and summary.