|Vicitms of the 2010 BP oil spill feel they aren't receiving adequate health coverage [GALLO/GETTY]
When news of the disastrous BP oil well explosion reached the residents of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana last April, Mayor Tim Kerner did the only thing he could think of to stop the oil from destroying his community. He encouraged everyone in his town to join him on the water, working day and night throughout the disaster to clean-up the spill.
Now, one year after BP managed to cap the runaway well that fouled the Gulf of Mexico with an estimated five million barrels of oil, most of those people are ill.
"I'm afraid my neighbors will come to me and say, I wouldn't have listened to you and kept my job if I knew it would kill me," Kerner said.
Kerner's story was one of many shared by Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, at a briefing Wednesday evening, the day after she led a delegation to the Gulf Coast to assess the scope of the emerging healthcare crisis in the wake of the BP drilling disaster.
"The residents are sick," Kennedy said. "They don't know what the exact cause of their illness is, but because they never suffered this way before the spill and they were all out on their fishing boats throughout the clean-up, they suspect this has something to do with the toxins."
According to Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade - an environmental justice group that partnered with Tulane University's Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy to conduct an on-the-ground survey of residents living in impacted communities - nearly 75 percent of those who believe they were exposed to crude oil or dispersant reported experiencing symptoms consistent with chemical exposure.
"Coughing, respiratory irritation, and eye irritation were the most common," Rolfes said. "[Respondents] described that the symptoms came on suddenly and they left suddenly and that would be consistent with getting some sort of wave of chemical exposure, even when we took things like allergies into account."
But Kennedy said that local physicians are hesitant to link their patients' symptoms to the oil.
"They don't have the expertise to make a diagnosis in toxicology, they don't know how to treat that diagnosis, and if they do attempt to treat it, they risk losing their medical licenses," she said.
And in a predominately rural region where a majority of patients are self-employed and uninsured, the health care facilities are too far away and access to toxicology experts is near impossible," Kennedy added.
"Even where that expertise is available, few can afford the expensive tests and medicines needed to treat toxic poisoning," she continued.
At the briefing, Kennedy's colleagues expressed hope that Congress would preserve funding for an expanding network of healthcare "centres of excellence," including a low-cost model site soon to be established in honour of Robert Kennedy in Jean Lafitte.
"They don't have the medical staff able to understand the effects of these toxins...so [patient's complaints] sound very fanciful and are quite often written off," said Steven Bradberry, executive director of the New Orleans-based Alliance Institute, which hosted the delegation.
"This is what we're going for with these centres of excellence, where we can have people who are familiar with the various toxins and the effects of toxins...so that patients can have somewhere in the region where they can get information on [the symptoms] they are observing," Bradberry said.
Their appeal has critical timing, as the explosive budget debate currently rocking Capitol Hill has been rife with calls to slash funds for programmes like Medicare, that are crucial to the livelihoods of low-income oil spill victims with new health concerns.
"We think it's a serious crisis and the federal government needs to grab hold of this in a more aggressive way and provide the wherewithal to make sure that the hundreds of thousands of people who were impacted by the spill have their health care protected," Phil Johnston, a member of the RFK Center's board, emphasised.
BP to blaim
Little mention was made of BP and its partners who, already facing possible legal ramifications for the disaster, pledged a 20bn dollar compensation fund to protect those impacted by the spill.
Earlier this month, US Attorney General Eric Holder informed Ken Feinberg, the man appointed to administer BP-related claims after his work with the September 11 Compensation Fund, that the Justice Department would initiate an independent audit based on complaints about the transparency of Feinberg's claims process.
A brief filed Monday called the process an "abject failure", and cited that the fund has so far paid only 16 percent of interim claims filed.
A recent study carried out by Advocates for Environmental Rights (AEHR) reported a discrepancy in the way Feinberg administered claims from previous disaster funds that were paid out with tax payer dollars - like 9/11 - with claims for the BP Oil Spill Compensation Fund, whose payments are siphoned from BP's own piggy bank.
"We found that in past disasters, the folks who were filing claims did not have to show proof of causation. All they had to do was say they were ill, they were at this place or in this location, and so it was. Their claims were taken care of," Michele Roberts, campaign and policy coordinator for AEHR, said.
However, in the case of the BP Oil Spill Compensation Fund, Gulf residents have learned that their claims are denied if they cannot provide proof that BP and its dispersant are the exact cause of their illness, Roberts said, calling the inconsistency "a direct human rights violation."
Rolfes is equally unimpressed with BP's compensation efforts.
"You look around, you don't see health clinics, all you see are BP-sponsored ads around town and in newspapers that say everything is fine," Rolfes said. "It's not fine. Until I see health centres being built in every parish where there was an impact, I haven't seen an adequate response."
"What we need is healthcare now and that should be funded by BP," Rolfes added. "It's not right for the tax payer to pick up the tab for BP's oil disaster."
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.