Healthcare Crisis in the Gulf?

August 1st, 2011 | Uncategorized |

Last week, Gulf advocates and activists gathered for a Capitol Hill briefing on the on-going health impacts of the BP oil spill, dispersant and clean-up process for the Gulf Coast. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights organized the briefing, and their President Kerry Kennedy presented the findings of a delegation that recently traveled the Gulf Coast meeting residents with health complaints in the wake of the spill. After their time spent attempting to understand the “scope of the emerging healthcare crisis in the wake of the BP drilling disaster,” Kerry and her team found that residents are sick and “don’t know what the exact cause of their illness is, but because they never suffered this way before the spill and they were all out on their fishing boats throughout the clean-up, they suspect this has something to do with the toxins.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has done extensive surveys with impacted community members, finding “Coughing, respiratory irritation, and eye irritation were the most common” symptoms of potentially oil-related illness, and that a full 75% of those who thought they had encountered oil or dispersant reported health impacts.

Yet in largely rural Gulf Coast communities where many people are uninsured, finding adequate care is an on-going challenge, and one that many health advocates believe is approaching a crisis point. Congressional budget-cutting efforts could make things worse, if funding is cut for support programs like Medicare or innovations like establishing clinics and health care centers of excellence in the region.

Regional and national organizations like the Bucket Brigade, RFK Center and Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) agree that this challenge is real and demands action. And getting compensation – or even an accurate diagnoses – for these health symptoms and illnesses has been a consistent challenge since the spill. A recent AEHR report analyzes how the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the $20B compensation fund set up by BP to respond to economic claims related to the spill, “effectively denies” health-related claims. The process for BP claims differs from previous funds administered by Kenneth Feinberg, including the Agent Orange Settlement Fund and 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Unlike with these other funds, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has required claimants to show that their symptoms were caused by the oil or dispersant chemicals, an almost impossibly high burden of proof. The U.S. Department of Justice is preparing to audit the Claims Facility and examine its process for accepting or rejecting claims, but it is clear that the process is not meeting the needs of those suffering in the Gulf.

While it’s hard to know how to help in the face of this challenge, perhaps the best we can do for now is to continue to advocate for federal and state support for vital health care and infrastructure programs, and continue monitoring the issue and urging the Claims Facility to honor valid health-related spill claims. And, if you’re in the region, check out the upcoming series of direct actions to let BP and policy-makers know that the crisis isn’t over.

Follow this and other Gulf Coast issues, and find ways to take action, on Bridge the Gulf.