Sequester cuts hit poor, elderly, cancer patients

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 15 2013 10:38 a.m. MDT

Ryan told his dad that if he got a job this summer, he'd like to contribute to the household. Medler can't believe it's come to this.

"It has been a very life-changing experience," he says gravely.

Nearly eight years after Hurricane Katrina left her stranded on an Interstate 10 overpass, Leila Tennessee thought she was finally back on track.

For several years after her return from exile in Texas, the 46-year-old New Orleans woman shuttled from relatives' homes to cars to storm-wrecked, derelict houses. Finally, after nearly four years on a waiting list, she received word in February that she'd been approved for a $756 monthly Section 8 housing voucher.

So excited to be leaving the single room she'd been renting, she worked out a deal with her new landlord to move into the two-bedroom shotgun house in the Ninth Ward in late February — a few weeks before the assistance was scheduled to kick in.

But not long after, she was informed that the voucher had been recalled — one of about 700 frozen because of the sequester, the Housing Authority of New Orleans says.

"It's a hurting feeling," Tennessee said recently.

Life has never been easy for her, but it was once tolerable.

She says she quit school after the 11th grade to take care of her new baby and her mother, who was dying of cancer. For two decades, a longtime boyfriend kept her comfortably housed and fed, but he died in 2004.

Then came Katrina.

Tennessee says she was living with a boyfriend in the city's Gentilly section when the storm flooded their home. After four days in the moldering second floor, she was taken by boat to the I-10 bridge; a bus carried her to Huntsville, Texas.

She returned to New Orleans after about seven months and has struggled ever since.

She had a job supervising post-event cleanup at the Superdome, but that work was sporadic and has recently dried up. She gets by with money from cleaning houses, washing cars and cutting grass with a borrowed lawnmower, plus $198 a month in food stamps.

The pastor who owns the house has agreed to let Tennessee and her boyfriend pay $175 a week. Despite hot weather, she hasn't been using the central air conditioning, in an effort to cut down on the electric bill.

In early June, she got a job frying chicken at a restaurant and hopes it will lead to something full time.

"I still need help," she says as a grandchild wails in the background. "I don't know where the next week's rent coming from."

Rita Nahta's first hint that something was awry was when the research scientist at the Emory University School of Medicine opened her email several weeks ago. She noticed something different about her federal grant for breast cancer studies: It was for three months.

Not a year's allotment as she was accustomed to — about $208,000 — but just a quarter of that.

The National Institutes of Health overall budget has shrunk by about $1.6 billion because of the sequester, and Nahta, an assistant professor of pharmacology, hematology and oncology at the Atlanta school, says she doesn't know when, or if, there will be another check.

"At times, it's almost overwhelmingly stressful," she says. "It's difficult to plan ahead. I have to be really careful about using the money. ... There's a term 'high risk, high reward' research.' You want to make significant contributions and that takes risks. But you don't want to do that when you're not sure how much money you have."

Nahta and her five trainees have found ways to stretch their dollars, reusing certain chemicals, buying supplies in bulk and pooling resources with other labs at the university. She refuses to dwell on any possible hardships. "I don't want to stir fear in people. .... I'm trying to stay optimistic," she says. "That's what my lab picks up."

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