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Times-Picayune (New Orleans): Pelosi: Congress still attuned to New Orleans' needs

By David Hammer

Promising that Congress is still listening to their hurricane recovery needs, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told leaders of New Orleans colleges and universities today that a new emergency stimulus package includes a higher education disaster loan program and a key insurance waiver the schools have been asking for.

'We're here to renew our partnership with you,' Pelosi said.

Higher education and health care needs took center stage on the third day of the congressional delegation's visit. Members of the delegation pledged to help the leaders of nine New Orleans institutions of higher learning after some of the help they requested was stripped from a recent spending package.

Speaking for his counterparts, Xavier University President Norman Francis told the delegation that universities still need help to overcome Hurricane Katrina's devastation. The nine local institutions suffered a combined $700 million in damages and $300 million in lost revenue in the first year after the storm.

Xavier's enrollment is recovering slowly. It had 900 students in its freshman class in the fall of 2005 and that fell to 450 in the year after Katrina struck. The freshman count went back to 670 in the fall of 2007 and is expected to reach 800 this fall, Francis said.

The delegation braved the midday heat at an Louisiana State University community health clinic in eastern New Orleans. The modular facility was built with federal aid, and clinic officials thanked Congress for making a positive impact in a section of the city 10 miles from the nearest hospital.

'If you're out here having a cardiac situation, you'll probably be dead by the time you get to the emergency room,' City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis told the congressional representatives.

While New Orleans has far to go in restoring its downtown hospital corridor, local leaders say community clinics represent a rare post-Katrina success, helping bring better care to traditionally underserved groups.

Clayton Williams, director of health systems development for the Louisiana Public Health Institute, said a $100 million grant helped launch the community health initiative. It features 70 sites run by 25 organizations in an effort to bring primary care to underserved, low-income populations.

Rep. Donna Christensen, a physician who represents the Virgin Islands, said New Orleans could become a model for bridging the gap in care, but expressed concern about improving electronic medical records.

Williams said President Bush's Office of Management and Budget stepped in and prohibited the $100 million grant from being used for improving health technology. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said a new provision is being considered in Washington specifically to fund health technology improvements.