Monday, September 05, 2005

Senate Democrats Relief Plan

Katrina Relief Plan for Senate Action This Week

Although the Congress last week appropriated $10.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Defense Department, it is clear much more will be needed given the enormity of this disaster. While government authorities and others assess the scope of the problem and decide how much additional funding will be needed to address specific problems, there are a number of legislative items the Senate can and should promptly approve that can help Katrina’s victims. After the Senate has completed action on this emergency legislation, we hope the Senate will quickly provide significant new funding, and consider other substantive proposals that could help address short- and medium-term needs. These proposals must be followed by a much broader, long-term effort to rebuild and rehabilitate the Gulf Coast region and substantially improve efforts to prevent, mitigate and respond to future disasters.

The following are just some examples of proposals that Senate Democrats believe deserve immediate Senate action this week:

Ensuring health care for all displaced victims

* Immediate access to Medicaid for displaced victims.
* No need to prove residency or assets
* No copayments
* No penalties for failing to sign up for Medicare Part B in time.

To ensure access to medical care, we should ensure immediate access to Medicaid for displaced victims. Paperwork requirements should be streamlined and asset requirements waived to ensure that victims, many of whom have no legal documents in their possession, can enroll in the program with little red tape. Residency requirements for participation should not apply to these victims to allow them to obtain health care services around the country. In addition, copayments should be waived for these people as they struggle to meet other needs as well. The Federal government should bear the full cost of these changes, and ensure that no affected state suffers a reduction in Federal Medicaid funding (their “match rate”) for other populations. This proposal is based on a similar successful initiative after the September 11 disaster.

We also should provide compensation to health care providers who provide a disproportionate share of the care for these victims.

Displaced victims should not be penalized for late enrollment in Medicare Part B because they have become newly-eligible or have lost coverage from another plan during this time. Similarly, everyone from the affected states should have an additional year to enroll in the new Medicare drug benefit and its low income subsidies. The automatic transition of dual eligible beneficiaries from Medicaid to Medicare drug coverage should be delayed in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, with the Federal government bearing the full cost of those people continuing Medicaid drug coverage.

Getting victims housing

* Emergency housing vouchers for displaced victims
* Expedited application procedures with no red tape.
* No tenant contributions until they find work.
* Tax incentives for private families to take in victims.
* Identify federal facilities that can house victims.
* Relief for homeowners facing threat of foreclosure

FEMA has said that up to 1 million people may need housing assistance.  The Senate therefore should immediately authorize the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create and distribute temporary emergency housing vouchers to victims, without many of the restrictions that apply under the existing Section 8 low-income voucher program.  For example, victims should not have to document their income levels, and tenant contributions should be waived until they find work.  HUD also should be authorized to increase existing limits on allowable 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 since many of the region’s local housing authorities are not functioning at full capacity, if at all. 

Given the scarcity of rental housing, we will need to rely on private individuals and families to provide free room and board to victims. To encourage this, we should immediately approve a tax subsidy for those who provide such assistance to Katrina’s victims.

To help identify locations to house victims, the Administration should be required, within 10 days, to release an inventory of federal civilian and defense facilities that can be used to provide emergency housing, or as locations for the construction or deployment of temporary housing units.

We should increase aid to owners of damaged homes by waiving current law caps on home repair assistance (now $5200) and home replacement assistance (now $10,200). In addition, we should waive a requirement that individuals leave their home to qualify for home repair assistance, a rule that threatens to exacerbate an already massive demand for shelter in the region.

We should reestablish the Temporary Mortgage and Rental Program, which has been used in the past, including after the September 11 disaster, to provide assistance to homeowners and renters facing financial hardship. This could be important for many victims who otherwise could lose their homes through foreclosure.

Getting victims to family members and friends

Many of Katrina’s victims have little or no access to transportation. Although FEMA has legal authority to address this, the agency seems overwhelmed and has proven unable on its own to meet the compelling needs of countless numbers of stranded victims. We therefore need to make this a White House priority and direct the President to lead a broad effort to quickly ensure that displaced victims can get to family, friends and others who can provide them with room and board.

Getting students into school

Many of Katrina’s victims are children who need to enroll in a new school. To encourage schools to accept these victims, and alleviate some of the resulting burdens, we should provide funding to school districts that accept displaced children. This funding could be used to hire additional teachers, teachers’ aides, or counselors, or to provide temporary expansions of classrooms. A similar program should be provided for institutions of higher education that admit displaced students.

Bringing victims’ families together and placing them with other families

The government should establish a toll free “800” number and web site through which victims could access a national victim database and information about available assistance. Displaced individuals could register and provide contact information, so that separated family members and friends could find each other. The database also would allow volunteers to sign up if they are willing to provide free shelter to victims.

Getting victims cash to meet other basic needs

To ensure that victims can get cash for their basic needs, we should strengthen and expand the Disaster Unemployment Insurance Program and automatically extend any expiring UI benefits that victims are receiving. We also should give the President authority to increase the $26,200 statutory cap on cash assistance through the Individuals and Households Program, and should waive the 25 percent matching requirement for States in the Gulf region. In addition, victims should be allowed to withdraw funds from individual retirement accounts (IRA’s) penalty-free, with extra contributions permitted later.

Providing financial relief to victims and National Guard

Katrina’s victims, and National Guard involved in disaster operations, should not be obligated to make payments to the Federal government in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. There should be a short term moratorium on obligations such as:

Student loans
Individual and corporate income taxes
Small business loans

In addition, disaster victims filing for bankruptcy should be treated differently under the bankruptcy code in recognition of their particular hardship.

Ensuring victims have access to food

We should ensure that the many victims of Katrina who are struggling to obtain food have access to food stamps through a streamlined application process. States should be provided relief from the additional costs associated with administering the food stamp program for victims.

Restoring order

We should provide law enforcement funding where needed to help protect innocent citizens from crime and to ensure that there are places in which to imprison dangerous criminals. In addition, we should authorize federal courts to convene outside of their ordinary location in the event of an emergency, such as the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. 

Helping victims get jobs

Private employers should be given an incentive to hire displaced victims by temporarily qualifying them for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which can reduce an employer’s tax liability by up to $2400 per qualified new worker. In addition, the Federal government should establish a temporary preference for hiring displaced victims who are qualified for jobs.

Moreover, many displaced workers now lack the documents they need to secure employment under Federal law, such as passports and birth certificates. This law should be relaxed temporarily so that victims can legally obtain work without such documents, so long as they can provide a valid Social Security number.

Supporting the National Guard

We should ensure that Guard units serving in the Gulf Coast effort be considered to have been mobilized under Title 32 (they are currently mobilized through the states). This would qualify them for federal benefits and ensure that their service counts as active duty for the purposes of retirement, health care, and other benefits. It also would make them eligible for the Family Separation Allowance if separated from their families for more than 30 days, and could provide relief from creditors and foreclosures.

Requiring accountability

We should require the President to submit regular reports to the Congress on the status of recovery efforts, the number of victims who remain without decent housing, jobs, etc., and any additional resources or action needed to address the crisis.