Dig Baton Rouge

FIGHTING FOR LIFELINES

By Nick BeJeaux

A program created to keep older Americans and combat veterans in touch with the world around them is coming under criticism, and one advocacy group is working to protect that program in Louisiana.

Louisiana for Lifeline recently opened an office in the state to protect the Lifeline Program, a bipartisan effort to provide discounted phone services to people who qualify. The program was started in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan and expanded in 2005 by President George W. Bush to include prepaid cell phones. The program is funded by monies collected by the Federal Communications Commission from providers that participate in the program ­– taxpayers don’t contribute a dime.

According to the Louisiana for Lifeline office, in Louisiana approximately 156,000 seniors and 36,000 military veterans are enrolled in the program.

“Seniors and veterans are very important; especially veterans who often have a tough time adjusting when they come back. We give them the tools to help them assimilate back into civilian life,” said Heyward Whetsell, LFL’s state director. “And while we specifically advocate for veterans and seniors, we also advocate for people on disability or otherwise qualify.”

Whetsell spoke about Raymond, a veteran of the Afghan War who returned to the states before he was 20 years old. Like many veterans, he struggled, but Lifeline gave him a chance to get back on his feet.

“When he got out of the military, he went home to New Orleans, and like so many of our veterans, found readjusting to civilian life difficult,” he said. “He was homeless for a short while, and at a shelter someone told him about the Lifeline program.  Louisiana has a big up-and-coming film industry, and Raymond was able to land a part as an extra.  With a phone, he was able to turn one job into a steady career as a bit part actor.  He’s no Tom Cruise or anything, but he’s off the street, and no longer eligible for the program because he’s making too much to qualify ­– which is exactly what we want for the 36 thousand Louisiana veterans using lifeline when they return home from serving us.”

Opponents of the program – at best – point out numerous cases of fraud within the program and – at worst – label it “Corporate Welfare.” The FCC has instituted reforms to combat the fraud, and Whetsell doesn’t think the label of corporate welfare isn’t fair.

“The most important of the reforms was probably a unified subscriber list. With the unified list, that form of fraud has been essentially eradicated,” he said. “As to the corporate welfare, I don’t think that’s fair.  It is a misconception that the money for this program is pulled from our federal budget.”

Newt Gingrich’s Congress mandated universal service in the 1996 Telecommunications Act with the intention to ensure that American seniors would have the means to communicate with their health providers, call for emergency services in the event of a crime or health emergency, stay in touch with family and be capable of organizing their own evacuation in the threat of a natural disaster.

“They also wanted to ensure that our nation’s most disadvantaged citizens would have a communications tool, which leveraged private industry, to help move them from welfare to work,” said Whetsell. “They did this without adding a dime to the deficit; the Universal Service Fund, from which Lifeline is funded, is paid for by mandatory donations from the telecommunications companies themselves.”

More information on LFL and the program in Louisiana can be found at www.louisianaforlifeline.com. Whetsell also encouraged Louisiana citizens to contact their federal representatives (found here under “L”: http://www.house.gov/representatives/) and ask for support for Lifeline.

 

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