Hurricane Katrina has exposed the ugly veil of poverty for many Americans and prison for many young people left without a sense of hope. In my Kos diary from last night, I wrote about how teens hopelessly caught in the cycle of poverty face the prospect of life imprisonment as a result of Katrina and the way the Bush administration plays politics with human lives.

By contrast, Democrats and Progressives everywhere are generating ideas to put America back to work and craft a New Deal for the 21st Century. Tonight, I will feature a letter from Consumer’s Union President Jim Guest on his ideas.
Shortly after the hurricane, I wrote about the need for us to radically change the way we do business. I argued that we need to pull out of Iraq, raise the minimum wage, and resurrect the Works Progress Administration to do the job companies won’t do. A few days ago, I wrote about how Senator Feingold would reform the Bankruptcy Bill and his efforts to persuade the major TV networks to help American families reunite. This is the third in an occasional series. Here are Guest’s ideas and my comments.

Rebuilding should promote improved economic opportunity and neighborhood stability for low income consumers. Rebuilding should be structured in such a way that it will promote local economic opportunity, strong and stable communities, and community infrastructure including affordable housing, access to employment opportunities and accessible health services.

The WPA that I suggested would do that, as we would redefine work as a basic human right. I wrote a month ago that I would increase immigration quotas, as immigrants would be willing to do the dirty work many Americans wouldn’t. However, I also feel that local residents should be given first priority when it comes to hiring people to rebuild the South.

No negative credit consequences for disaster victims. Consumers from the affected areas of Hurricane Katrina must be protected from the need to make payments during the period of disruption, and from negative credit consequences such as penalty rates or penalty fees, negative reports to credit reporting agencies, sale of debt to collection agencies, repossessions and related judgments, and foreclosures, for a sufficient time period. Consumers should not be held responsible for the costs of telecommunications services and other utilities that stopped functioning during and after the disaster. Requirements for service deposits should be waived for evacuees seeking to establish new services.

This all depends on the individual company. Some creditors will understand completely what their customers are going through. If you have a story about such a company, a post on them would be welcome. Others are like the blood-suckers at Halliburton, who suck taxpayer dollars down the black hole, never to return.

No pay, no delay, to access disaster benefits and payments. Consumers should be protected from fees and practices that will interfere with prompt access to the full amount of benefit payments, including fees to use FEMA debit cards, fees to cash FEMA or other benefit checks, and long check holds that delay access to benefit or insurance funds.

Capitalism is all well and good much of the time. But the problem with Capitalism is that it places a price on human lives. And companies are profiting off basic necessities that people need in order to live by charging fees to use a FEMA card at their place. And they may very well be the only game in town.

Ensure insurance claims are paid promptly. FEMA should urge insurers to pay claims promptly, leaving disputes about allocating claims between flood insurance and a victim’s property insurance to be worked out between insurers and FEMA later. Also, the GAO should begin a review of how claims are allocated to make sure taxpayers do not end up paying claims that should be legitimately paid under property insurance policies.

Today’s New York Times has a long article about how fistfights are breaking out between Katrina victims and insurance reps who they feel are too stingy about paying benefits under the plan. But then again, Bush never reads the New York Times.

Protect victims from increased risk of identity theft. The damage caused to personal financial records and computer data in the affected areas makes victims ripe for identity theft. Consumers need strong anti-identity theft protections, because the time and delay to remove negative credit information generated by a thief could interfere with prompt access to credit, insurance, and employment that victims need to rebuild financial lives.

A prime example would be a thief pretending to work for your neighbors offering to rebuild your house for cheap.

Ensure health access in region. The guiding principle should be temporary Medicaid enrollment of Katrina victims who do not have health insurance or have lost employment in the impacted region, with the federal government covering that share of increased costs. This assistance should last as long as necessary to correct the health insurance disruptions caused by Katrina. Grants and other assistance should be made available for the reconstruction of needed health facilities (e.g., non-profit dialysis centers, hospitals and ER rooms, and skilled nursing facilities).

Supported by Feingold, a bill by Senators Grassley and Baucus to temporarily enroll Katrina victims in Medicaid insurace is being held up by Bush and Frist.

Strengthen our public health infrastructure. The conditions left by Katrina were ripe for the spread of infectious disease – corpses in standing water, heat, mosquitoes, and many sharing squalid living spaces. Paired with the erosion of our public health infrastructure in recent years, we have the potential for another kind of disaster. The resources needed to combat the spread of infections and disease over the long term must be in place and accessible to Katrina victims scattered throughout the region.

This could include delivering vaccinations, putting helicopters on standby for nursing homes and hospitals to evacuate residents in the event of another hurricane, and stuff as simple as volunteer projects where students at a local school could overturn containers full of water.

Help workers easily transition back to the employer-provided health care system. Extend the time limit displaced workers have to find similar employer-provided health coverage. Currently, a private insurer must cover a consumer’s pre-existing medical conditions if a person obtains coverage from another insurer within 63 days. That time limit should be extended substantially for those consumers who lost jobs – and health insurance – due to Katrina.

I would suggest three years, given the fact that many bankruptcy filings do not happen until 2-3 years after a traumatic event like a disaster.

Provide special help with the cost of prescription drugs and the start-up of the new Medicare drug benefit. Consumers in the impacted counties will have a harder time paying for high-cost drugs and accessing information about the new Medicare drug benefit. Relief for high-priced drugs can be provided by making prescriptions temporarily available at the Veterans Administration negotiated price (which is up to 50 percent lower than market price) and by urging drug companies to expand their existing low-income assistance programs to also serve those in the impacted areas.

To reduce consumer confusion and time pressure to sign up for the Medicare drug benefit, extend the period in which those who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid can receive drugs from Medicaid, and allow enrollment in a drug plan anytime in 2006 without penalty. Also, offer a government-administered drug benefit to save area residents from having to research and shop for the best privately-administered plan.

I would further argue for the importation of Canadian or another country’s drugs as well.

Ensure manufactured homes used as emergency housing are installed properly and only used temporarily. Installation inspection by qualified personnel is essential to the safety and habitability of any manufactured home. It is important to understand that emergency housing is temporary. Implement an aggressive plan for transitioning residents to more appropriate permanent housing. In Florida, evacuees from last season’s hurricanes still live in emergency manufactured housing more than a year later. An aggressive transition plan will prevent the creation of overcrowded communities of manufactured homes lacking economic, public safety and other essential infrastructure.

Vouchers, suggested by Paul Krugman, would be a good way to transfer resident from emergency housing to permanent housing promptly. I would argue that the Bush administration is trying to create ghettos to keep Katrina victims out of sight.

Public airwaves for public safety. Public airwaves should be used to aid communications among emergency officials, consumers and others in the wake of a disaster. Wherever possible, relief efforts should include establishing ad hoc communications systems based on the most appropriate technology to restore basic communications – such as wireless broadband services for voice communications when wire lines or cellular services are not functioning.

This is another one of those cases where it does not make sense to allow large companies to make large profits off of human lives. That is when the government should step in and provide the service themselves, like with universal healthcare.

Replacement of cellular equipment. For many victims of Katrina, cellular phones are the only way they will be able to communicate with friends and family. For such critical “life-line” communications services, relief measures should provide consumers with emergency replacement equipment at reduced or no cost. Consumers affected by the hurricane should not lose cell phone service for non-payment during the evacuation and recovery period, nor be penalized for late payments or charged for out of state use or cancellation.

It has become increasingly clear that the old lassiez-faire free-market system is broken because it gives priority to profits over human life. In matters when a human life in on the line, that is when the government should step in and provide the service themselves.

Free-market capitalism is fine when it does not involve human lives. For instance, I would not support, say, nationalization of the food industry or the toy industry. But when it does, that is when government should step in, as with national health insurance or disaster relief.

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