What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cutoff contradicts congressional order

Masthead Text

Friday, October 12, 2007
By Bill Walsh

WASHINGTON -- Despite a congressional directive to make mental health services for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast a financial priority, the Bush administration has rejected an application by a prominent children's program in New Orleans that now faces cutbacks.

The co-director of the Louisiana State University program, which evaluates and treats children in areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, said services will be scaled back "very considerably" without the $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"The children are the most traumatized in the United States," said Howard Osofsky, chairman of the psychiatry department at LSU Health Sciences Center. "If we are going to prevent the scars and give them the best chance to succeed, they really need these services."

The administration said it is still looking into what occurred but said Congress' failure to approve a spending bill last year for the Department of Health and Human Services might have played a role.

"That would certainly have a big influence on it," said Kay Springer, spokeswoman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which awards the grants.

Key services lacking

As the recovery from the 2005 hurricane season grinds on, the mental health of Gulf Coast residents has been a major concern, as has the shortage of services. A survey of 2,757 children returning to the New Orleans area within a year of Katrina found that 49 percent met the criteria for a mental health referral, 20 percent had been touched by a hurricane-related death or injury, and 33 percent had been separated from parents or guardians.

Concerned about the need, Congress in the $605 billion fiscal 2007 spending bill for the health department directed the agency to give "high priority" in awarding grants to programs treating victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes as well as families and children of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, when the agency issued its call for applications earlier this year, it said priority would be given to the treatment of children from broken homes, refugees, those with life-threatening illnesses or those who had relatives serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. It made no mention of Katrina.

Osofsky learned in late September that his application had been rejected.

"I don't want people to panic," he said. "But without the funding we will have to cut back very considerably."

Landrieu blasts denial

The Louisiana Rural Trauma Services Center received a four-year grant in 2003 from the Bush administration and has been held up as a model program. It helps pay to send LSU mental health professionals into schools, courts and Head Start programs in Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes to evaluate and screen youngsters for signs of mental illness and provide follow-up treatment. The program also trains school workers to spot symptoms of mental illness.

Since the storm, Osofsky said, the need has never been greater. He has seen a rise in the incidence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bullying in the schools and unusually risky adolescent behavior in the parishes still struggling to recover.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., blasted the administration for rejecting the program when the region needs it most.

"It is shocking that during a time of ongoing hurricane recovery in New Orleans, the Department of Health and Human Services would deny funding to this renowned program that provides essential mental health services to the city's children," Landrieu said. "It is further troubling that the agency would disregard the expressly stated intent of Congress to give priority for children's mental health grants to facilities that help children along the Gulf Coast handle the post-traumatic stress of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

Agency blames Congress
However, the federal health department said Congress might be partly to blame.

Though the House and Senate, controlled by Republicans at the time, each passed their own versions of spending bills for the health department in 2006, Congress failed to reconcile the two versions and pass a final appropriations bill for the agency. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution, which had the effect of maintaining 2006 financing levels throughout fiscal 2007.

Springer, the spokeswoman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, said the agency didn't have Congress' directive to prioritize mental health grants to the Gulf Coast when it put together its program earlier this year.

"We did not have an approved appropriations bill, only a continuing resolution," Springer said. "Any language that would be included in an appropriations bill wasn't available to us."

However, Landrieu spokesman Adam Sharp noted that the agency chose to give priority to children and families of returning war veterans, a directive that was contained in the fiscal 2007 spending bill, but somehow left off hurricane victims. He said that despite Congress' failure to pass all the spending bills last year, some agencies followed Congress' policy directives anyway.

"They chose to use the Iraq language from the fiscal 2007 bill but ignore the Gulf Coast language," he said. "They were clearly picking and choosing. They can't have it both ways."

Landrieu said she hopes to remedy the situation next week. She plans to offer an amendment to the fiscal 2008 spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services when it comes to the Senate floor. The amendment would direct $400,000 in grant financing to the LSU mental health program.

Bill Walsh can be reached at or (202) 383-7817

Return to A.M. in the Morning! Home

No comments: