President Bush Approves $51.8B Aid Package for Hurricane Katrina Survivors
President Bush on Thursday signed a $51.8 billion aid package in response to Hurricane Katrina, after Congress "rapidly and overwhelmingly" voted in favor of the bill, and the president pledged to help survivors obtain public health and other benefits, the AP/Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. Bush "vowed to cut through red tape" that could prevent hurricane survivors from claiming federal medical, food and housing benefits, the AP/Star-Telegram reports (Dalrymple, AP/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 9/9).
Bush said the federal government is working to "ensure that those ... who receive federal benefits administered by the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana will continue to get those benefits in the states where [they are] now staying" (Espo, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/9). He said survivors now located in other states will be granted evacuee status, allowing them to register for public benefits without producing standard documentation. Evacuee status applies to "a host of public assistance programs," including Medicaid, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports (Walsh, New Orleans Times-Picayune, 9/9).
In addition, Bush said he was "going to work with the Congress to reimburse the states that are taking in evacuees from the affected areas along the Gulf Coast" (Rovner, CongressDaily, 9/9).
In related news, Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is drafting a bill that would make health care and unemployment benefits easier to acquire for hurricane survivors, the Wall Street Journal reports (Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 9/9). Grassley on Wednesday said he would work on the proposal with ranking Senate Finance member Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
In addition, Reps. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on Thursday introduced a legislative package -- originally proposed by some Senate Democrats -- that would reimburse states for Medicaid costs of evacuees, provide full federal funding for Medicaid in the hardest-hit states, delay scheduled Medicaid matching payment reductions and delay certain provisions of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit (Rovner, CongressDaily, 9/9).
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) on Thursday offered a similar package as an amendment to the fiscal year 2006 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which was the first available vehicle for her proposal, CongressDaily reports (Rovner, CongressDaily, 9/8).
Democrats at Thursday's House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing argued that continuing with plans to reduce federal Medicaid spending by $10 billion over five years "could cause further damage to victims of Hurricane Katrina," CQ HealthBeat reports (CQ HealthBeat, 9/8).
Newspapers on Thursday reported that lawmakers had decided to delay at least temporarily the budget reconciliation process, including finding the Medicaid cuts. Some lawmakers had suggested entirely abandoning the plan to reduce Medicaid spending (California Healthline, 9/8).
Dingell, the committee's ranking Democrat, said, "One of the greatest needs will be health care for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. At this time, we should not be cutting Medicaid but shoring it up, giving states the federal assistance they will need to care for the influx of hurricane survivors."
Waxman said, "Cutting Medicaid, especially in the face of Hurricane Katrina, is simply not right." Democrats argued that one "motive for reducing Medicaid spending is to help finance $70 billion in tax cuts that will primarily benefit higher-income Americans," CQ HealthBeat reports (CQ HealthBeat, 9/8).
Republicans at the hearing "were far from united," CongressDaily reports. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) said the reconciliation process should be postponed because the "context has changed in the past 10 days" (CongressDaily, 9/8).
However, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he hoped to mark up Medicaid legislation "within the next few weeks" (CQ HealthBeat, 9/8). Barton said, "Unlike the devastation recently caused by Hurricane Katrina, the crisis facing Medicaid is a manmade disaster. Whether Medicaid changes is no longer in question -- the only question is whether we will begin to transform this program so we continue to help the poorest of the poor or allow it to literally rot away."
Grassley said, "It's important to understand that the Medicaid reform effort is about fixing loopholes and stopping abusive spending so that more money is available to help states reach those in need both in the short and long term" (CongressDaily, 9/9).