White House Calls Health Reform Crucial to Fighting Homelessness

By Alexi Mostrous
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

The Obama administration opened up a new front in the health-care battle Thursday, saying that extending publicly funded programs such as Medicaid and Medicare was essential to combating homelessness.

Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said there was "no question" that successful health-care reform would limit the growing number of homeless families and would benefit the tens of thousands of chronically homeless people.

"We already know that simply having 46 million uninsured people in this country clearly contributes to persistent and widespread homelessness," Donovan said, speaking in Washington to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Health-care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies."

HUD reported this month that the number of homeless families nationwide rose 9 percent in the 12 months leading up to Sept. 30, 2008, and by 56 percent in rural and suburban areas. At the same time, several years of progress in reducing the number of chronically homeless people ended as their numbers stabilized.

Around 70 percent of homeless people are uninsured, with only 25 percent eligible for Medicaid, according to Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for Homelessness. "A huge number are not [insured] because they don't have the paperwork or identification. They don't get treatment, and they get more helpless."

The administration's push to combat homelessness through health reform comes as polls show eroding support for President Obama's overhaul plan, with opponents convincing many Americans that the plan could limit their treatment options and increase premiums.

Donovan also said tackling homelessness would drive down overall medical costs. He cited a recent study showing that homeless people who are given supportive housing visited hospitals 42 percent less often than those who live on the street.

Donovan's agency has allocated $1.5 billion over the next three years to combat homelessness nationwide, with funding particularly targeted at families and individuals in danger of becoming homeless for the first time. Donovan said he is in discussions with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to link public housing programs with Medicaid and Medicare services.

About 1.6 million people used an emergency shelter between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, and 516,000 of those were seeking shelter as families, according to HUD.

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