Lawmakers Express Concerns about Addressing Coronavirus in Puerto Rico

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Joaquin Castro (D-TX) wrote a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the White House Task Force on Coronavirus, asking what the White House plans to do in support of Puerto Rico during the pandemic.

“Because of the ongoing impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and a more recent earthquake swarm,” they began, “the island was already struggling before the COVID-19 outbreak with economic uncertainty and a medical and public health infrastructure that had not yet been fully rebuilt.”

Referencing the devastating 2017 hurricane season, the swarm of earthquakes in the winter of 2019-2020, and the Island’s debt crisis, the legislators said that they “remain concerned that the island’s financial situation and insufficient federal resources will severely limit Puerto Rico’s ability to deal with the expected economic and public health consequences of COVID-19.”

Failure to respond

“The federal government’s failure to respond adequately to the 2017 hurricanes has been well-documented,” the letter continues, referencing a FEMA report admitting inadequate preparation for Hurricane Maria, as well as many news reports. “As of November 2019, the federal government has only ‘disbursed about $14 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, out of an estimated $91 billion that will be needed over the next two decades.’”

In fact, since September 2017, Congress has allocated almost $20 billion for three separate Community Development Block Grants Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) fundings, but only $1.5 billion has reached the Island.

The letter details concerns over specific actions by the administration, including the illegal failure of HUD to provide a required notice allowing funds to be disbursed, a February statement saying that the White House “strongly opposes” additional relief for Puerto Rico, and extra layers of regulations making it difficult for Puerto Rico to use the funds provided.

Healthcare shortages

“We are deeply concerned about Puerto Rico’s health care workforce and its readiness to respond to future growth of the outbreak on the island,” the letter continues. “Currently, about 1.7 million people in Puerto Rico, more than half of the island’s estimated population, live in Health Professional Shortage Areas.”

This means that they are so understaffed by physicians that less than 2% of the areas’ healthcare needs are met. Puerto Rico medical system has been severely underfunded for decades, so it is less able to handle medical emergencies than the States.

“As of Tuesday, April 2, 2020, there are over 315 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Puerto Rico, including 12 deaths due to COVID-19,” the authors wrote. “As COVID-19 continues to spread across the island, the outbreak risks infecting particularly vulnerable parts of the population. About 20 percent of Puerto Rico residents are 65 years of age or older, and they are more likely to have pre-existing conditions, meaning that they are high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The letter went on to point out that fewer residents of Puerto Rico have health insurance from their employers, and more rely on Medicaid, which is severely underfunded.

“While the government of Puerto Rico has taken steps to contain the spread of COVID-19,” the lawmakers said, “we are concerned that the Trump administration’s actions to delay and impede the island’s economic and health care disaster recovery will result in further grave harm to the island’s residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Questions

The letter ends with a series of questions:

  • How will administration officials ensure that individuals and businesses in Puerto Rico receive the benefits and assistance to which they are entitled under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act?
  • Have the consequences of the disasters and limited recovery from them been considered?
  • How will the COVID-19 relief from the CARES package be disbursed in a fair and timely fashion (the bill specified that Puerto Rico must come up with a plan and get approval from the Treasury)?
  • How will the administration make sure that the healthcare system of Puerto Rico, specifically the hospitals and the healthcare workforce, has the needed resources to cope with the pandemic?

The letter gives a deadline of April 17th for the White House to reply to these questions.

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