States tweak requests for mental health aid addressing Gulf of Mexico oil spill stress


At the request of BP and with the aid of the federal government, state health officials from Texas to Florida are retooling their pending requests that the energy giant finance expanded public mental health services in the wake of the worst oil spill in American history.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and other U.S. Health and Human Services executives told local public health providers and advocates gathered Thursday in eastern New Orleans that the Obama administration will press BP to provide the aid.

“We won’t stop (looking for money) if BP says no,” Benjamin said at Mary Queen of Vietnam community center.

But outgoing Louisiana Health Secretary Alan Levine warned that BP could be using a new bureaucratic process to stonewall pending requests.

“I’m very concerned that BP is just hiding behind federal agencies to slow this down,” said Levine, who was not at Mary Queen of Vietnam. “It took them more than two weeks to even acknowledge receipt of our first request,” a May 28 letter seeking $10 million for an initial six-month program.

BP’s Houston press office did not respond to a request for comment. A company representative was on hand as the assembled social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other advocates told the federal panel of lingering needs among a population that is now more susceptible to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, domestic violence and other physical and mental conditions induced or aggravated by stress.

Mississippi, Alabama and Florida also have asked for mental health money. But BP requested earlier this month that the states draft more uniform requests, with the company saying it was not qualified to review multiple grant applications for programs that varied in scope and duration, in addition to separate requests from some local governments and nonpublic entities.

The mental health division of HHS agreed to provide the states with a template application, with the idea being that BP will review the five omnibus requests and then make a decision.

Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at HHS, said her office will add its own appeal to buttress the applications.

Louisiana will have its revised plan to Hyde’s office by “the middle of next week,” Levine said. Hyde said her intention is to move it quickly to BP officials, whom she said have given her no indication of their time line for a decision.

Levine said he would prefer that BP simply approve the financing requests that the states have already made, contingent upon Hyde’s agency approving the outline of the states’ respective plans.

“We have no problem with SAMSA having to approve what we’re doing,” he said. “Just tell us that you’re going to pay. … We know this is going to be a problem for many years down the line.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal gave $1 million to the state’s Louisiana Spirit program — a post-Hurricane Katrina mental health outreach effort — out of a $25 million general response grant BP approved for Louisiana in June. Levine said that money runs out in August.

The providers said Thursday that the mental health problems have only started to surface in many coastal communities.

Dr. Ben Springgate, a Tulane University professor and leading mental health advocate who organized the forum, noted that the region has an expanded public health infrastructure since Hurricane Katrina. But he said many of the primary care clinics, some more equipped than others to handle behavioral health issues, are nearing the end of a post-Katrina federal grant.

Marilyn Shraberg, of Catholic Charities, said she sees increasing mental stress among residents because of financial hardships, a circumstance she and others said could be helped only by streamlining the BP claims process and providing other direct aid, independent of counseling.

Diem Nguyen, who leads Mary Queen of Vietnam’s health programs, said many fishers in the Vietnamese community are reluctant to acknowledge a need for help in the first place.

“They just want to work,” she said.

Nguyen also stressed the need for more interpreters and providers who can speak the native languages of fishers and overcome a communication barrier that can be its own stressor.

Benjamin, an Alabama Gulf Coast native who ran a primary-care clinic in the fishing community of Bayou la Batre, Ala., before her federal appointment, told the group that she understands the challenges the oil spill poses.

“It’s hard to explain (to outsiders) what the water means to us,” she said, later explaining that the disaster is a greater long-term threat to the region’s mental health than a hurricane.

“The biggest factor is the uncertainty,” she said. “With hurricanes, you wait for it to strike, it hits, then you move on with the recovery. … With this, you continue to ask every day: ‘When will our oyster beds be back?’ ‘When will our jobs come back?'”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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