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Leavitt Responds to House Panel on Katrina Recovery

By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ Health Beat Associate Editor

March 23, 2007 --The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will continue to work with Louisiana state and local officials to improve access to health care services in areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt told House lawmakers this week.

In a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Leavitt said short-term efforts to rebuild the state's health care system include authorizing $15 million of the remaining federal funds for state payments to recruit and retain professional health care workers in the greater New Orleans area. In his letter, dated March 21, Leavitt said HHS also was reviewing Medicare graduate medical education (GME) payments in response to suggestions that more funding would help retain sufficient numbers of interns and residents.

Leavitt also wrote that his agency is open to a demonstration application from Louisiana officials that focuses on improving the New Orleans region health care system first, with plans for eventual state-wide expansion.

Earlier this month, witnesses told the subcommittee that the New Orleans area continues to struggle with providing basic health services more than 18 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Some witnesses and committee members said HHS was not doing enough to help the area recover.

Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., issued a statement that he was pleased Leavitt "is taking a fresh look" at the federal government's initial responses to handling Katrina's damage to the New Orleans health care system. He also urged Leavitt to convene a summit in Louisiana to address the state's pressing medical workforce issues.

"As became apparent during our hearings, while long term solutions are needed to repair New Orleans' health care infrastructure, immediate relief is also needed for the residents of the Gulf Coast who lack access to health care," Stupak said.

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