Senate Democrats

Democratic Leaders Introduce Katrina Emergency Relief Act

Washington, DC - Today, Democratic Leader Harry Reid was joined by Senator Mary Landrieu, the Democratic Leadership and Ranking Members to unveil the Katrina Emergency Relief Plan to provide immediate aid and assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. This legislative package offers emergency aid to allow the victims of Hurricane Katrina to obtain the health care coverage, housing, education and financial assistance they need in this time of crisis.

Prepared Remarks of Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Summary of Legislation Introduced Today:

“Let me begin today by speaking directly to the people of the Gulf Coast: I want you to know that we see you and understand what’s happening. You couldn’t have a more effective advocate than Senator Landrieu. You have experienced a serious blow, and she understands. All of us stand with you in these days.

“We’re here today because there are families who have lost everything. They need health care. They need housing. Their children need education. And they need us in Washington to help.

“The President and Republicans are moving forward with the latest emergency request, and we all support it. But we also recognize there is more that we can do in these days. All of us here are prepared to move forward with a plan that will get survivors the resources and relief they must have now.

“We’ve developed our Katrina Emergency Relief Act. It will get victims health care, housing, education and financial relief. After this press conference, we will introduce it in the Senate.

“At the same time, the American people deserve answers from an independent commission, as Senator Hillary Clinton has proposed, about how the federal government failed to properly handle this disaster.

“We know America can do better. Let’s get to work. Let’s change our future.”

KATRINA EMERGENCY RELIEF PLAN

As the recovery efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina continue, the Senate has the opportunity to provide emergency relief to the survivors. With millions of Americans left homeless and millions more feeling the direct impact of this devastating storm, it is time for the Senate to show that it stands with the survivors to provide relief and assistance for their immediate needs now and will continue to support the Gulf Region as the recovery and renewal proceeds in the coming months and years.

PROVIDE MEDICAL COVERAGE:

The survivors of Hurricane Katrina need health coverage for their medical care just at the time when their state governments are facing a serious lack of resources. Some of Katrina’s survivors were already uninsured and many of those who had health insurance have lost it and have been relocated. This situation demands the following response:

  • Provide Katrina Survivors with Health Coverage Through Medicaid Wherever They Are Now
  • Ease Enrollment in States’ Medicaid Programs and Provide Services to Survivors Without Regard to Assets or Income
  • Guarantee Full Federal Funding for Medicaid for Survivors in New States
  • Provide Full Federal Funding for Medicaid Programs in Directly-Affected States

HOUSE THE HOMELESS:

FEMA has estimated that up to one million people may be left homeless by the Katrina disaster and require housing assistance. Many will lack the standard paperwork to apply for government assistance and will face steep rents as affordable housing is already limited for many. The Senate should take the following actions:

  • Provide Emergency Housing Vouchers for Evacuees
  • Expedite Applications Procedures so Evacuees can Find Housing
  • Provide Time for Survivors to Find Work Before Tenant Contributions are Required
  • Identify Federal Facilities to House Victims

KEEP KIDS IN THE CLASSROOM:

The Katrina disaster has coincided with the beginning of the school year, taking hundreds of thousands of school children out of the classroom. No student should miss one half of a school year or perhaps even more. The Senate should take immediate action to help these students get back to class and assist the school districts receiving students absorb the new students:

  • Award $2,500 Grants Per Student and Other Assistance to School Districts Receiving Displaced Students
  • Provide Temporary Assistance to Early Childhood Education Programs and Agencies Receiving Displaced Children

HELP AMERICANS GET BACK ON THEIR FEET:

Not only have hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their homes, they have also lost their jobs and their livelihoods. It will take time for Americans to get back on their feet. The Senate should take the following actions to ease the burden on the victims and assist them in their recovery:

  • Give the Victims a Moratorium of 180 Days on Any Loan Payments or Other Obligations to the Federal Government
  • Waive Any Limitations on Total Assistance to Individuals
  • Provide Mortgage and Rental Relief to Protect Americans from Foreclosure or Eviction
  • Ease Bankruptcy Laws for Victims
  • Extend and Expand Unemployment Insurance for Victims

Provide Medical Coverage

Hurricane Katrina has created a health as well as a humanitarian crisis. Survivors have been injured and weakened; they are homeless and jobless. Some of Katrina’s survivors were already uninsured and many of those who had health insurance have lost it and have been relocated. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama face a double challenge: greater need and fewer resources. The economic impact on the Gulf States is likely to be enormous, causing revenues in these states to plummet. They will not be able to meet their normal fiscal obligations, let alone the new demands on their health programs created by the hurricane. The states nationwide that have welcomed Katrina survivors will also need assistance with these new health care costs.

Provide Katrina Survivors with Health Coverage Through Medicaid Wherever they are Now. Everyone who lived in the federal disaster parishes in Louisiana and the federal disaster counties in Mississippi and Alabama should be eligible for Medicaid using streamlined enrollment processes even if they have relocated to another state. We should also cover anyone who lives elsewhere in those three states, but loses their job.

Make it Easier for Health Care Providers to Care for Katrina Survivors. Once enrolled, Katrina survivors who are in other states would receive Medicaid as though they were Medicaid enrollees in that state. This means no new systems or rules for health care providers.

Guarantee Federal funding for Health Care for Katrina survivors. The federal government should fully finance the cost of providing Medicaid to Katrina survivors in any state in which they are enrolled. This could continue for six months with a possible extension for another six months if the need continues. In addition, the scheduled declines in some states’ Medicaid matching rate for FY 2006 should be cancelled.

Ensure a Smooth Transition to the Medicare Drug Benefit for Katrina Survivors. Parts of the implementation of the Medicare drug benefit should be delayed in states directly affected by the hurricane, along with their neighbors. Specifically, the transition of “dual eligibles” from Medicaid to Medicare and the “clawback” payments should be temporarily suspended to prevent survivors from losing drug coverage. The proof of assets requirement for the low-income drug benefit should be delayed and penalties should be waived for not immediately enrolling in the Medicare drug program.

Guarantee Federal Funding for the Added Costs Medicaid Programs in Affected States. The economic impact on Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama will be staggering. These states will not be able to meet their normal fiscal obligations, let alone the ones they face in the wake of this disaster. Therefore, the federal government should fully fund their Medicaid programs that care for their elderly, low-income families, and people with disabilities for a period of six months, renewable for an additional six months.

House the Homeless

FEMA has estimated that up to one million people may be left homeless by the Katrina disaster and require housing assistance. Many will lack the standard paperwork to apply for government assistance and will face steep rents as affordable housing is already limited for many. Meanwhile, FEMA is ill-equipped to deal with the unique and extensive housing demands of survivors, many of whom will need housing for an extended period, and many of whom have scattered around the country.

Provide Emergency Housing Vouchers for Evacuees. The Senate should immediately authorize the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a temporary, emergency-housing voucher program for victims, without many of the restrictions that apply under the existing Section 8 low-income voucher program.

Expedite Applications Procedures so Evacuees can find Housing and Provide Time for Survivors to Find Work before Tenant Contributions are Required. Victims should be able to receive assistance without regard to their income levels, and tenant contributions should be waived until people find work. In calculating the amount of assistance, HUD also should be authorized to take into account higher rents given the likelihood that rents in Gulf Coast areas will increase substantially for the foreseeable future. HUD needs to take over primary responsibility for distributing vouchers, but continue working with state and local officials, since many of the region’s local housing authorities are not functioning at full capacity, if they are functioning at all.

Identify Federal Facilities to House Victims. To help identify locations to house victims, the Administration should be required, within ten days, to compile and report an inventory of federal civilian and defense facilities that can be used to provide emergency housing, or locations for the construction or deployment of temporary housing units.

Keep Kids in the Classroom

To every extent possible, dislocated children should be afforded every opportunity to continue education without further interruption. Hundreds of school districts have opened their doors to K-12 students who are at risk of losing valuable continuity of educational care. In an effort to assist these local educational agencies absorb this influx of students, the Senate must recognize that these districts will need additional resources.

Award $2,500 Grants per Student to School Districts Receiving Students. There are hundreds of thousands of students who no longer have a school to attend because they have had to evacuate from their homes. They must get back into the classroom as soon as possible. The Secretary of Education should award grants to school districts receiving students displaced by the hurricane of $2,500 per student.

Provide Assistance to School Districts Receiving Displaced Students. Democrats want to create an opportunity for school districts to receive funding for basic instructional services like tutoring, mentoring or academic counseling; personnel salaries; materials needed for curriculum and classroom; and acquisition of rental space to accommodate students.

Provide Temporary Assistance to Early Childhood Education Programs. Funds will be provided to Early Head Start and Head Start to accommodate the additional young children who will need services because of the storm. After coordination with all pertinent agencies, funds can be used for costs associated with services to care for children, including nutrition, materials, hiring additional personnel, and rental space.

Help Americans Get Back on their Feet

Hurricane Katrina’s vast destruction across the Gulf region has not only destroyed homes, it has destroyed livelihoods. Hundreds of thousands if not millions have lost their jobs and businesses. The federal government can take the lead in ensuring that the burden caused by Katrina is no heavier than it already is. The Senate should do everything it can to provide relief to Americans.

Moratorium on Student Loans and Other Federal Payments. Individuals harmed by the Katrina disaster should be granted a 6-month moratorium during which they will not be penalized if they fail to make payments on a federal student loan, small business loan, or other loan made, subsidized, or guaranteed by the federal government and the president should be empowered to extend the moratorium if necessary.

Ease the Burden by Expanding Assistance to Survivors. The Stafford Act’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP) provides assistance to individuals whose needs cannot be met through insurance or other assistance. These payments can be used for temporary housing, rental payments, home repairs and replacement as well as medical and other expenses. Currently, IHP grants may not exceed $26,200 per individual or household and are subject to relatively low statutory limits on home repair ($5,100) and home replacement ($10,200). The Senate should waive these caps.

Remove Requirements for State Matching on Assistance Grants. A statutory cost-sharing requirement now requires that states contribute 25% of some grants under IHP. Since the affected states have been hit so hard, the federal government should waive this state cost-share responsibility.

Prevent Foreclosures and Evictions. In years past, FEMA administered the Mortgage and Rental Program (MRA), which was designed to cover rent or mortgage payments for those who suffer financial hardship as a result of a major disaster declared by the president. Persons suffering financial hardship who are unable to pay their rent or mortgage and are facing eviction or foreclosure would be eligible. The Senate should reinstate the MRA for the affected states.

Ease Bankruptcy Provisions. Many of the survivors of Katrina will face difficult financial situations. The Senate should make it easier for those devastated by the hurricane to seek protection under the bankruptcy laws.

Feed the Victims. In order to assist in the distribution of food to the victims, the Senate should provide additional funding to purchase and distribute food and suspend requirements that make no sense in the wake of this disaster, such as requiring a victim to show up for a job that no longer exists. Benefits will also be available for as long as needed -guaranteed for six months and automatically extended for another six months unless the president makes a determination that they are not necessary.

Extend and Expand Unemployment Insurance for Victims. Early estimates suggest that between one half million and one million workers will be left jobless by Hurricane Katrina. The jobless rate in the Gulf Coast region is expected to increase to 25 percent or higher. The Senate should extend the deadline for Disaster Unemployment Assistance from 30 days to 90 days as well as extend program eligibility for individuals who would otherwise be eligible for state unemployment insurance. Survivors should also have the maximum duration of benefits extended from 26 to 52 weeks and a standard minimum benefit level should be created.

Relief for Withdrawals from Retirement Plans. The Senate should provide relief to Katrina victims by suspending the tax on withdrawals from qualified retirement plans. It would allow those who have suffered losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina to access these funds for a short period without suffering adverse tax consequences.

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