FEMA's Crisis Counseling Program Needs Improvement: GAO

Catastrophic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina can traumatize the people who experience them, so the U.S. government gives money and other support to states to help them answer these needs, The Government Accountability Office has examined federal agencies' actions to help states prepare for the psychological consequences of disasters and states' experiences obtaining and using grants from the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program in a new report.

CCP is a FEMA program. GAO said it reviewed documents and interviewed program officials from federal agencies and conducted additional work in six states with experience responding to disasters: Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Texas, and Washington. Some of the money was awarded in fiscal years 2003 and 2004 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which gave grants to mental health and substance abuse agencies in 35 states for disaster planning during that period. SAMHSA assessed the mental health and substance abuse disaster plans developed by states that received those grants last year and found that, for the 34 states with plans available for review, the plans generally showed improvement over those that had been submitted by states as part of their applications for the grants. The agency also identified ways in which the plans could be improved.

About half the plans did not indicate specific planning and response actions that substance abuse agencies should take. GAO's review of the plans available from the six states above found varying attention among the plans to covering substance abuse issues. SAMHSA is now exploring methods of determining states' individual technical assistance needs. Other federal agencies -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and DHS -- have provided broader preparedness funding that states can use for mental health or substance abuse preparedness, but these agencies' data-reporting requirements do not produce information on the extent to which states used funds for this purpose.

State officials said they had difficulty collecting information needed for their CCP applications, experienced lengthy application reviews, and had problems recruiting and reaining service providers because of FEMA's policy of not reimbursing states and their CCP service providers for indirect costs, such as certain administrative expenses, according to the report.

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