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U.S. Secretary of HHS declares health emergency in Texas; Perry seeks statewide health plan

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

After touring shelters at the Kelly USA facility in San Antonio today, where thousands of persons have evacuated from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency in Texas. The Secretary said the designation will speed up federal assistance for the state, which is currently housing nearly 250,000 hurricane evacuees.

Leavitt toured the facility with Texas Governor Rick Perry, after which the governor directed Texas Commissioner of Health Dr. Eduardo Sanchez to develop a statewide plan to address both the short-term and long-term health needs of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Texas.

Leavitt praised Texas state officials and Texas citizens for their quick response to assist the tens of thousands of evacuees. The Secretary said he would relay that information to another Texan, President George W. Bush, during a Tuesday Cabinet meeting. "This is a national emergency - Texas has responded," said Leavitt. "The national government will step up in ways that I feel every confidence will make certain that your generosity is made whole."

Perry said he has directed Sanchez to develop and implement a statewide healthcare plan so that all evacuees with special needs - particularly children with disabilities, the frail and the elderly - will have their needs met. He said he has asked the Health Commissioner to draw up a plan "so that every evacuee receives the medical attention, medicine and rehabilitation that can help them begin to reclaim a life of dignity."

Perry, too, had kind words for Texans and the state's medical community, saying the medical community's response has been "nothing short of amazing." He said there is a real threat of epidemics breaking out in shelters across the state. "The challenge of providing life-saving and life-sustaining care to a number of evacuees is immense. The need for mental health and social services is also great."

The governor issued a special plea to licensed healthcare professionals from Louisiana - nurses, social workers, and others - who are already in Texas to participate in the hurricane relief effort. The state has already made arrangements so that those individuals' Louisiana licenses are good in Texas for a minimum of 45 days.

Plans announced yesterday to airlift some of the nearly quarter of a million evacuees in Texas to other states have been put on hold, announced the governor, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now in charge of that operation. FEMA officials note they have put the airlifts on hold while they study the best way to handle the large number of evacuees. Perry said the state's largest cities - Houston, Dallas and San Antonio - have indicated they were at capacity for receiving evacuees, prompting him to seek assistance from other states. Numerous states have offered not only to accept some of the overflow evacuees from Texas, but to transport them as well. "Many states remain committed to taking evacuees from Texas," said Perry, but the decision will be up to FEMA.

"What we are dealing with here is an evacuation effort on a scale never seen before," said Perry. "It is an immense challenge and will continue to be so for a number of months. But we will continue to receive our neighbors with open arms because we know they have nowhere else to turn. We hope we can provide them not just food, water, shelter and medicine, but dignity and decency as they pick up the pieces of their lives."

More news links and relief effort resources from KERA

More news from KERA's NewsRoom

More coverage of the health care crisis in Texas on KERA's Life in the Balance page