While headlines run all day about how high the Nasdaq closed, how many jobs were created last month, or perhaps the future of electric cars, there is one news story that needs more attention: the economic collapse and impoverishment of Puerto Rico. You may not realize it, but Congress is on the verge of deciding whether hundreds of thousands of impoverished Puerto Ricans will have access to healthcare coverage.

To provide some background, the island with a population of roughly 3.4 million people has been struggling for quite some time. With more than $70 billion dollars in debt, the Commonwealth defaulted on its debt in July 2016. At the urging of President Obama and Congress, an oversight board known as the “OB” was created with the goal of creating a sound and long-term fiscal plan. Unfortunately for the citizens of Puerto Rico, there is no solution in sight as the board and the governor of Puerto Rico have not finalized their economic plan.

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As if matters could not get worse, the territory of Puerto Rico is facing a massive healthcare problem as funds are set to run out before the end of the year. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is projected that funds will run out in the first few months of 2018. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 46.2 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line, compared with 14.8 percent in the United States. Even though this difference is substantial and growing, Puerto Rico receives less than the rest of the 50 states.

 

In recognition of this crisis, our organization, the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA) sent a letter to Congressional leadership, which included the following passage: “What is most troubling about the current situation is that even though Puerto Ricans pay the same Medicare and Social Security taxes as citizens living in the mainland, the funding for Medicare and Medicaid in the Commonwealth can be about half of those received on the mainland.”

In addition to our own advocacy, 74 Democratic members of Congress recently wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.), urging him to immediately act and prevent about 1 million Puerto Ricans from losing their coverage. These members wrote, “We want to stress our support for an immediate short-term solution to ensure full fiscal year financing for 2018 to avoid the Medicaid cliff. It is time for Congress to act — and act soon — as Puerto Ricans have suffered far too long.”

Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico is not only the ethical thing to do — it is actually the cheaper thing to do. The worse the situation in Puerto Rico gets, more people will migrate to the United States. Because healthcare services in the Commonwealth are much cheaper, it is in Congress’ benefit to extend funding instead of paying Medicaid for Puerto Ricans in the United States.

According to one recent report, “The jobless rate in Puerto Rico is more than twice that on the U.S. mainland, poverty is three times as severe, and homes cost less than they did 15 years ago. Even tourism, a rare bright spot with hotel occupancy the strongest in a decade, is imperiled by an outbreak of the Zika virus.”

Puerto Rico needs help and Congress needs to act fast. If our elected representatives can take leadership and walk the Commonwealth off of the Medicaid cliff, that would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Dr. Elena V. Rios is president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Organization, representing Hispanic physicians in the United States.


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