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Health Problems Linger One Year After Katrina


Health care for the poor and uninsured along the U.S. Gulf Coast is still suffering nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina. Community health care centers provided emergency treatment during and after the storm. But as VOA's Melinda Smith reports, treatment is now being hindered by bureaucratic red tape and a shortage of medical personnel.

Before the storm hit on August 29th of last year, the southern states of Mississippi and Louisiana were near the bottom of national health care rankings. Since Katrina, both are certainly at the bottom.

Community health care centers in the United States have traditionally treated poor people who cannot afford private medical treatment. But their task was made more difficult when 11 health facilities were destroyed in the storm. Eighty others sustained significant damage.

Almost one year later restoration of federal funding for reconstruction -- and for the support of medical teams coming into the area from across the country -- have been tied up in congressional budget talks.

Meanwhile, patients still need treatment for skin problems and respiratory conditions caused by mold and dust, along with other illnesses prevalent in the area such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. And there are mental health problems to deal with as well.

Michael Andry heads a local health agency in New Orleans. "We are treating individuals with depression, anxiety, those who have homicidal or suicidal ideation [tendencies] and obviously post-traumatic stress disorder."

The community health care officials at a news conference in Washington said 70 percent of the local doctors and nurses have not returned to damaged parts of Louisiana.

Dr. Gary Wiltz runs the Teche Action Clinic in Franklin, Louisiana, 160 kilometers southwest of New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. He says the evacuation of medical personnel from the metropolitan area of New Orleans to other parts of the country has highlighted an already existing shortage of doctors in rural areas like his.

"There's a desire for a lot of them to come back. I know a lot of my friends who have relocated want to come back,” says Dr. Wiltz, “but it's very difficult to come back when you've lost over half the population that you had before."

The National Association of Community Health Centers estimates that as many as two million people were evacuated or displaced when Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. Before the storm, one out of three people in Louisiana and Mississippi did not have a regular source of medical care. Community health experts say their system became another casualty of Katrina -- and needs major improvements immediately.

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