Earlier this week, House Democrats introduced the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to guide and enhance the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The legislative proposal includes $100 million for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide nutrition assistance grants to Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in response to the outbreak.
The $100 million in nutrition assistance and other elements of the proposal, including expanded Medicaid coverage for Puerto Rico and the states are currently under discussion.
The unique vulnerability of U.S territories during difficult times has caught the attention Congressional leaders, including House Appropriations Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Related Agencies Chair Sanford Bishop (D-GA).
In a hearing earlier this week with USDA Secretary Sunny Perdue, Chairman Bishop pressed Secretary Purdue about an Inspector General report issued by USDA in October of 2019 concluding that Puerto Rico’s lack of authority to operate a disaster nutrition program resulted in related disaster funding not reaching Hurricanes Irma and Maria survivors until six months after the hurricanes.
Chairman Bishop further noted that since Puerto Rico was unable to operate a disaster its Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), the U.S. territory was even unable to adequately plan in advance for the hurricanes.
Puerto Rico obtains its nutrition assistance through NAP, a capped block grant program, while States qualify for unlimited disaster assistance for qualified residents through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) entitlement.
Secretary Purdue pushed back, noting that the “block grant . . . should give the territory more flexibility in fulfilling their issues.” He added that he was not sure that putting Puerto Rico “under a traditional SNAP plan would help or hurt the territory.”
“It looks like they would have more ability to serve their people through the block grant with limited rules and regulations in that way,” explained Purdue, “rather than administering a traditional type of SNAP plan as other states must do.”
“The block grant, though, has a cap on it,” responded Bishop. “And if the need exceeds the block grant, they–they’re out of luck. And you’ve got people that will go unserved.”
Bishop concluded by pointing out that “Puerto Rico is not a state,” and stating, “I am concerned and there’s a great deal of concern about the territories being able to have the resources they need when they need it.”
“[T]here seems to have been some–some disparity,” he continued, “[a]nd because of that, we’re trying to explore what we can do to eliminate that problem recurring every time there’s a disaster, which may require resources that exceed whatever the block grant cap is.”