June 8, 2006

FEMA Now Requiring Doctor’s Note for Free Generators

By Amy Sherman

Only people who can prove a medical need will qualify for free generators after a power-cutting hurricane, according to a new federal policy.

Last year, Florida residents -- rich or poor -- who suffered through major power outages could buy generators for up to $836 and then be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The bill was huge: about $118 million in 2005.

But a taxpayer watchdog group decried the policy as a waste of money.

Now, under a new national policy that went into effect June 1, storm victims seeking FEMA reimbursement will need to provide a receipt and proof that the equipment is medically necessary, such as a letter from a doctor.

U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, said he urged FEMA to change its giveaway policy.

"If somebody wants to buy a generator to take care of their home, to take care of outages, it's their own responsibility," said Shaw, whose home was without power, or a generator, for two weeks after Hurricane Wilma struck last October. "Obviously being without electricity is a huge inconvenience, but it's not up to the federal government to compensate people for inconvenience."

Still, even the new policy could reward some wealthy residents with free generators -- if those people can prove they have a medical need.

In 2004, when Florida was pummeled by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, FEMA paid about $213 million to provide generators.

In 2005, FEMA reimbursed hurricane victims up to $835.97 each for generators if their power was out at the time of the purchases and they lived in a federal disaster area.

The reimbursement came under the "other needs assistance" category that allowed hurricane victims to purchase up to $1,676.65 worth of goods, which also included chain saws, air purifiers, wet-dry vacs and humidifiers.

Whether to reimburse for generators has not been solely up to FEMA.

States have had a say in the matter, since states pay 25 percent of the tab. Florida, until now, had opted to include generators in what could be reimbursed, regardless of the purchaser's medical condition.

At a hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale last month, FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulison, promised changes in response to criticisms of the way the agency handled last season's hurricanes -- including the generator giveaway.

"We're revamping our generator program to make sure those who need a generator will get them, but we're not going to hand them out willy-nilly like we did last year," said Paulison, a former Miami-Dade fire chief who has a home in Davie.

Dr. Frederick Keroff, district medical director for emergency services for the Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County, noted that diabetics need access to refrigeration for insulin, and some patients, such as people with severe asthma, need electricity to run home nebulizers that help them inhale medications.

But Keroff questioned how FEMA will define medical necessity.

"You can really stretch it," said Keroff, who specializes in emergency medicine. "If you have an elderly individual who might be susceptible to changes in temperature and might become overheated, do they need A/C to prevent illness? It's possible. . . . There's opportunity for gaming the situation."

The policy does not define medical necessity, but FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said the agency will publicize more information about what qualifies after a disaster occurs.

Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., nonpartisan budget watchdog, last year criticized FEMA for giving away generators to people who didn't need financial assistance.

"We support any effort to make the system more accountable and verifiable," Ashdown said. "That seems like a step in the right direction."

The new three-page FEMA policy states that it is an interim policy effective until it's replaced by a final policy. The generator policy does leave some wiggle room: "The Recovery Director may waive one or more eligibility criteria during extraordinary circumstances (e.g., sustained power outage during a period of subfreezing temperatures), when determined to be in the public interest."

FEMA started reimbursing residents for generators in 2002, Walker said.

Walker denied that criticism led to the policy change, which he described as a result of a routine policy review.

Walker emphasized the need for residents living in hurricane-prone areas to prepare for themselves this year, including stocking up on medical supplies.

Miami Herald staff writers Dan Christensen and Martin Merzer contributed to this report.


Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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