Realizing the Right to Health in the Gulf Coast
RFK Community Health Center, Operated by the Jefferson Community Health Care Center
The Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig owned and operated by BP, exploded off the Gulf Coast on April 20, 2010. In the three months that the BP well continued leaking, it retched 170 million gallons of crude oil into federal waters; this was followed by the use of two million gallons of chemical dispersants intended to dispel the oil, but instead it has exacerbated the problem. Residents of the Gulf Coast were the first responders to the BP drilling disaster, cleaning up the spill and working to minimize the impact on the shores, and they continue to live in the most heavily affected areas. Fishermen were exposed during the cleanup; families were exposed along the beaches, bayous, and canals; and entire communities along the shores and marshes continue to suffer. The full spectrum of chemicals used in the dispersants was only revealed in June 2011 and only after extensive litigation. For communities across the Gulf, access to appropriate diagnosis and treatment for illnesses caused by chemical exposure is inadequate.
Impact on Health
Inadequate access to primary health care along the Gulf Coast is not a new phenomenon; rather it is the result of historical and structural inequities. For residents in coastal rural areas, proximity to facilities, cost of treatment, and lack of insurance make access to quality health care an ongoing problem. Access is further compromised because existing medical facilities are often overburdened. Although this problem was emphasized following the 2005 hurricane season, the states had not made clinics available by the time disaster struck again in 2010. As a result, coastal communities have been forced to confront widespread contamination with little or no health infrastructure or services.
Symptoms suffered by residents of the Gulf Coast in the wake of the BP oil disaster are consistent with chemical exposure, including acute headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, irritation of the eyes and throat, and vomiting. Respiratory problems such as asthma, nervous system failure, liver and kidney disorders, and blood disorders have all been identified. The region’s doctors do not have the support needed to appropriately document and track these symptoms. Instead, individuals have reportedly been told to take pain-relievers. In some cases, they have even been discouraged by health professionals from attributing their conditions to the oil disaster. Meanwhile, there is insufficient understanding of how to diagnose, treat, and monitor the health impact of the chemical dispersants. Practitioners lack specialized skills to deal with the impact of chemical exposure.
The Right to Health is the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, without discrimination of any kind. Fulfillment of the human right to health is vital to all aspects of a person’s life and well-being, and is crucial to the realization of many other fundamental human rights and freedoms.
The existing federal infrastructure of Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) plays a critical role in addressing healthcare inequalities, but given current available resources, cannot meet the widespread need in the Gulf. Individuals from rural communities gravely affected by the BP oil disaster struggle to access these facilities for a range of reasons. The distance to “local” health clinics, for example, is one practical barrier to access for residents.
Jean Lafitte, located on Barataria Bay in Jefferson Parish, LA, is one such community. Jean Lafitte is one coastal community south of New Orleans where residents who were exposed to the oil and dispersants have gone months suffering the symptoms of exposure. Yet residents have had little or no access to the appropriate medical care. The nearest FQHC is the Jefferson Community Health Care Center, established in 2004 to deliver health care to the impoverished, uninsured, and underinsured members of the community in and around Jefferson Parish. This health center is 14 miles from Jean Lafitte.
A partnership of community and national groups is working to bring low-cost and immediate treatment to those who need it most in the communities of Barataria, Crown Point, and Jean Lafitte, LA. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) is partnering with the Jefferson Community Health Care Centers, the local government in Jean Lafitte led by Mayor Tim Kerner, 2005 RFK Laureate and Executive Director of the Alliance Institute Stephen Bradberry, and Tracy Kuhns of the Louisiana Bayoukeeper to develop a low-cost model to provide residents with access to healthcare professionals. The town has offered rent-free space to house a health care facility – to be named in honor of Robert F. Kennedy – which will be serviced part-time by medical professionals from the Jefferson Community Health Care Centers (JCHCC). They will provide coordinated service with mental health care professionals to address the high levels of depression, memory loss, and chronic anxiety prevalent in Gulf Coast communities as a result of this disaster.
The Clinic will bring healthcare to the residents of Barataria, Crown Point, and Jean Lafitte, as well as gather information about the health impacts of the oil spill. With concrete data, the community partners will be better equipped to advocate for additional federal support for the region.
Next Steps and Needs
The RFK Center is fundraising and soliciting in-kind donations to establish the treatment facility in Jean Lafitte in honor of Robert F. Kennedy.
Along with its supporters, the RFK Center is dedicated to raising $65,000 to cover the first year of operations, during which the Clinic will seek federal funding through the Jefferson Community Health Care Center.
Please consider making a contribution to support our efforts to help approximately 6,000 Gulf residents access the health care they deserve. Donations can be made through the RFK Center, indicating they are for the Jean Lafitte Health Clinic, or through the Jefferson Community Health Care Center. Your contribution will not only aid in the startup of the Clinic but also ensure that the Right to Health is realized by all residents of the Gulf.
Make a Contribution to the Jean Lafitte Health Clinic
By Mail through the RFK Center for Human Rights:
Send a check to 1367 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Suite 200 Washington D.C. 20036
Payable to the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights
Or through the JCHCC:
Jefferson Community Health Care Centers, Inc. c/o Dana Delpit 1855 Ames Boulevard P.O. Box 2490 Marrero, Louisiana 70073
For more information, please contact:
Mary Beth Gallagher
202-463-7575 ext. 244