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Thursday, October 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Many hurricane evacuees rejected for Medicaid

WASHINGTON — More than half of the hurricane evacuees in Louisiana who sought help from the Medicaid program to cover their medical bills have been rejected because of strict eligibility guidelines that keep out even some people far below the poverty line.

The more than 6,000 people who have been turned down for coverage since the Aug. 29 storm have been caught in a political dispute over whether eligibility should be relaxed in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and if so, who should pay for the added health-care costs — the state or federal government.

"At this point, we have no choice but to deny those people," said Ruth Kennedy, Louisiana's Medicaid director.

Kennedy said the state's Health and Hospitals Department is holding onto the rejected applications in case a congressional logjam is broken that frees up money to pay the extra cost. "We don't want to lose them," she said.

Louisiana's Medicaid eligibility rules, which are established by the state Legislature, are among the strictest in the country. People between 19 and 64 without dependent children can only qualify if they have incomes of less than $174 a month. That hard-to-meet standard has contributed to a high rejection rate since Katrina hit the state, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes throughout southeastern Louisiana.

Kennedy said 55 percent of the applicants have been rejected.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Max Baucus, D-Mont., have been pushing legislation to loosen Medicaid-eligibility rules for hurricane victims with the federal government footing the bill. Their legislation would cover health expenses for five months at a cost of about $9 billion.

But it has bogged down in the Senate, where fiscal conservatives have balked at the hefty price tag. It is also opposed by the Bush administration, which said it is overly broad and unnecessary because states, including Louisiana, could get federal permission through Medicaid waivers to loosen eligibility rules.

Jail

Reports of corpses in jail disputed by officials

BATON ROUGE, La. — The New Orleans sheriff yesterday disputed claims from a human-rights group that inmate corpses were floating in the city jail after Hurricane Katrina and that prisoners were left for days without food or drinking water in cells where the floodwaters were chest-high.

Human Rights Watch has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate treatment of prisoners in the jail, accusing Sheriff Marlin Gusman of abandoning inmates in ground-level cells, unattended by guards, as floodwaters rose.

The group cited interviews with inmates who said they saw corpses and were left for four days in darkness, without food, drinking water, air conditioning or working toilets.

The sheriff said no one died in the jail after the storm. And the state Department of Health and Hospitals said there have been no reports of corpses found in the jail. Gusman called the allegations "fiction" from disgruntled inmates. "They're in jail, man. They lie," he said.

Gusman said the jail suffered little damage from the Aug. 29 storm, but as floodwaters began to rise, he began evacuations. Within days all the jail's roughly 6,000 prisoners were transported to jails around Louisiana, he said.

Jackpot

New Orleans resident changes luck in lottery

OPELOUSAS, La. — A New Orleans storm victim shelled out $4.25 in quarters and won a $1.6 million jackpot at a Louisiana casino where she had stopped to play the slot machines on her way to shop at a Wal-Mart.

"I am a casino fanatic, it relaxes my nerves," said Jacquelyn Sherman, 57, a retired librarian whose fortune changed Tuesday. "I like winning, but I never expected to win like this."

Sherman has been sleeping on her sister's floor in Opelousas since Hurricane Katrina ravaged her house and killed hundreds of New Orleans residents. Sherman said she is determined to find a new, comfortable home back in the Big Easy.

With regard to Wal-Mart, Sherman said: "We haven't gotten there yet."

Compiled from The Associated Press, Newhouse News Service and Reuters

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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