WASHINGTON – The House voted Tuesday to add money to a federal repatriation program and ensure that 8,000 to 15,000 Americans fleeing Lebanon have lodging, medical care and transportation.
The Health and Human Services Department expects to reach the program's $1 million cap this week.
"We need your assistance in lifting this cap as soon as possible," Secretary Michael Leavitt wrote to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Arriving U.S. citizens who are exhausted and without financial means will be left to fend for themselves upon arrival in their home country."
The government provides temporary assistance to citizens and their families when they arrive in the United States after fleeing foreign countries due to destitution, illness, threat of war, invasion or other crises.
Repatriation centers have opened at Baltimore's and Philadelphia's airports to assist Americans returning from Lebanon. They are staffed by medical and mental health professionals, and they have phone banks and computers to help people contact friends and relatives.
The House bill, passed by voice vote, temporarily lifts the program's $1 million cap to keep assistance flowing to the 8,000 to 15,000 Americans expected to leave Lebanon.
"Many don't need much help, but some do," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash, and the program "enables us to help Americans who escaped a conflict with their lives but little else."
The program provides aid for up to 90 days.
It is designed to help get people to their homes or other destinations as smoothly as possible. In the majority of cases, evacuees don't need much assistance, and they pay their own way for their lodging or for the airplane tickets.
In some cases, people fled without money or credit cards to pay for immediate needs. The government can provide money, medical care, lodging or transportation in those cases, and evacuees getting assistance promise to repay the money.
In a small number of cases, when a citizen is truly destitute, the government will pay the expenses for getting them to their final destination. The program also repays states for any assistance they provide to repatriating Americans.