Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has transformed life in the United States, including Puerto Rico, for the foreseeable future. There’s little question that this variant of the coronavirus will dominate the narrative in our nation for months to come. As elected public officials, it is our duty to safeguard the population against this historic virus that already have caused the deaths of more than 900 Americans. That is our first task. But there’s also a need to salvage our economic base with the main goal of reducing unemployment among our citizens.
We will get out of this crisis, I have no doubt about it, that is why it’s important to act now to save lives and to jump start our economy at the same time. There’s no excuse not to succeed in both areas.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has implemented a series of initiatives directed at providing our health care system with the space, equipment and resources needed to combat this enemy. The federal government has steped up and provided us with some of the tools we need to heal our population and to mitigate the economic damage caused by this disaster. For that, I thank the Congress, particularly our Resident Commissioner, Jenniffer González, in working tirelessly with the White House to secure a massive aid package to begin our recovery in earnest. I also recognize the work and vision of President Donald Trump in assuring the nation that we will beat this and sooner than expected.
That said, because of our political situation as a non-incorporated territory, Puerto Rico needs more from the federal government to survive this health and economic crisis. That is why I’m urging the Congress, as well as the White House, to commit a supplemental package exclusively for our island. The most pressing item on the agenda must be health care. As stated before, because of our condition as the world’s oldest colony, Puerto Rico only receives around 55 percent of all Medicaid-related cost reimbursements, the rest falls on the local government.
In most states, the average return is around 85 percent. But thanks to the work of our resident commissioner after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, we are currently receiving 100 percent reimbursement allocations. Unfortunately, that formula will only last until FY 2021. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic we need Congress to extend this formula until, at least, to FY 2024. That would free local resources to combat the virus.
Another safety net that the U.S. citizens living on the island need to have comes in the form of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, with all its dispositions.
To help our population, we are requesting that Congress extend to the island all the platforms associated with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, including the program known as Two Unemployed Parents which provides help for families that have both parents on unemployment.
To assist our elderly, the sector of our society most vulnerable to the COVID-19, we are requesting that Washington grant us the full benefits of the Social Security Income Act, most pressing, the supplemental part of it.
Our college students, the future of America and Puerto Rico, hit hard by this pandemic, must be free of the terrible weight caused by federal student loans. A moratorium on repayment must be implemented immediately.
To help our small business, the Small Business Administration must implement more robust measures, including extending loans, increasing amounts available, reducing red tape and creating self-help programs to ensure a better use of the resources.
Another tool to help our businesses, especially in the tourism sector, is the reincorporation of the Essential Air Service Act, a program that pays for unsold seats in airlines flying inside Puerto Rico, as well as to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now more than ever, this program is important and could be expanded to include cities in the U.S. eastern seaboard.
All these initiatives, as well as others, will be detailed in a letter that the members of the Puerto Rico House of Representative will send to the congressional leadership.
In the end, with the help of the federal government and the measures taken at the local level to curtail the spread of the virus, Puerto Rico will not only survive, but will flourish in short time. That’s our pledge to our people and we will not fail.
Carlos ‘Johnny’ Mendez-Nunez is Speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.