Katrina Evacuees Protest Aid Cutbacks in D.C.
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.
A group of Hurricane Katrina evacuees brought their demands for help to Capitol Hill yesterday. The largely African-American group came from New Orleans' most devastated neighborhoods. A coalition of organizations concerned about potential congressional cutbacks in aid to the poor coordinated the visit. The evacuees say they're particularly worried about proposed cuts to Medicaid. NPR's Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.
NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:
The group of about 15 evacuees began their day in Congress with a visit to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's office. There, they were introduced to a time-honored Washington tradition: the Capitol Hill press conference. Under the glare of TV lights, Michelle Baker told her story how she and her family took shelter at the Superdome; then in Baton Rouge, how she'd worked as a custodian at a public school, but isn't sure when the school will reopen and how she was turned down when she applied for Medicaid.
Ms. MICHELLE BAKER (Evacuee): I was rejected, refused. We may not be waiting desperately for bottles of water to reach us, but the truth is that we need jobs and health care, just as if we are going to survive this crisis.
MARSHALL-GENZER: Congresswoman Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid promised to bring that message to the House and Senate floors. Republicans say they need to cut some government spending in order to help Hurricane Katrina victims. But Pelosi says a House measure that would cut Medicaid by $10 billion to fund hurricane relief doesn't make sense.
Congresswoman NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): You're saying to the poorest children in America who depend on Medicaid for health care--we're asking the poorest children in America to pay for the care for the children of Katrina. It's simply not fair.
MARSHALL-GENZER: Pelosi said the group of Katrina evacuees could get that message across better than she could, so the evacuees were introduced to a second time-honored Washington tradition: lobbying.
(Soundbite of crowd)
MARSHALL-GENZER: They broke up into smaller groups to prowl the marble halls of Congress. Seven evacuees headed outside to a nearby congressional office building where they had an appointment with a staffer for Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico. On the way, Katy Neeson(ph) practiced her message that it's important that Medicaid not be cut back now, especially for hurricane evacuees who may have special needs. Neeson, for example, says she's been coughing and vomiting ever since she visited her house in New Orleans' flooded Ninth Ward.
(Soundbite of walking)
Ms. KATY NEESON (Evacuee): I took sick when I came back. In fact, I haven't gotten over whatever the doctor said I inhaled--whatever I inhaled from New Orleans has gotten into my lungs. And so, I had to go to the hospital and when I got back to Dallas, I still haven't gotten over whatever it is.
MARSHALL-GENZER: Neeson didn't have insurance to pay for that hospital visit. After Katrina hit, she lost her job as a switchboard operator for the city government and the benefits that went with it. Neeson also lost her home. Her house is so damaged, she can't live in it. She and her family moved into an apartment in Dallas. That brings her to the second part of her message which is aimed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.
Ms. NEESON: I have not received anything from FEMA. My rent is due. I'll have to start paying the rent the 1st of November. Ha--so, I mean, it's just a lot of things that should be done, or could be done, financially that isn't being done--not taken care of. So where do we go from here? No money. How are we going to pay for our living expenses?
MARSHALL-GENZER: Finally, it's time for Neeson to get some answers. The group has arrived at Congresswoman Wilson's office and is greeted by a legislative assistant.
Unidentified Legislative Assistant: How you guys doing today?
Unidentified Woman #1: Fine, fine.
Unidentified Legislative Assistant: What can I do for you?
Unidentified Woman #1: We've set up a meeting--Or have we not?--for 1:00.
Unidentified Legislative Assistant: For 1:00, was about some Katrina...
Unidentified Woman #1: The impact--yes, yes. So I'm not sure if the other groups are coming.
Unidentified Legislative Assistant: ...survivors and health care.
MARSHALL-GENZER: The rest of the meeting was off-limits to the press. NPR was unceremoniously shown the door, but the evacuees' sponsors said they plan to focus their message on the proposed Medicaid cuts with personal stories like Katy Neeson's taking center stage. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer in Washington.
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