Two years after Maria, Puerto Rico awaits disaster funds

Two years after Maria, Puerto Rico awaits disaster funds
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Two years after Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane María, officials there are clamoring for the Trump administration to release disaster relief funds.

The Category 5 hurricane hit the U.S. territory on Sept. 19, 2017, destroying the island’s electrical grid and striking a gut punch to an already faltering economy.

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The following February, Congress approved an $8.3 billion package in redevelopment funds to be managed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Less than $2 billion of that package has made its way to Puerto Rico as of the two-year anniversary of the storm, and HUD missed a deadline for the funds’ allocation earlier this month.

Last week, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced led a delegation of Puerto Rican leaders, including powerful Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, on a tour of Washington to rally congressional and administration allies to speed up the assignation of funds.

Vázquez, a nonpartisan former prosecutor who took over as governor after the resignation of her Democratic predecessor, Ricardo Rosselló, avoided political rhetoric in her dealings with administration officials.

"I have to say the experience was very different," said Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R).

"[Vázquez] arrived touting her record as a secretary of justice, as a prosecutor for many years, and how she wants to have accountability, how she wants to do things with transparency," González-Colón added. "Something I liked is that she told all the agencies, 'Tell me what you want us to put into law, to work on in a specific way so the funds can be disbursed.’ ”

Vázquez's low profile may have helped to avoid the direct attention of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE, who has repeatedly called Puerto Rican officials "corrupt" and had a combative relationship with Rosselló.

“Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt,” Trump tweeted last month as another storm threatened the island. “Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!”

Rivera Schatz told The Hill that Rosselló's resignation last month will help smooth relations with the White House.

"If there was tension between President Trump and Governor Rosselló, well obviously as ex-Governor Rosselló has left the scene that disappears," Rivera Schatz said.

HUD missed a Sept. 4 deadline to allocate the funds under the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief program for Puerto Rico, while meeting deadlines for California, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Officials for HUD did not return a request for comment on this story.

Puerto Rican officials avoided confrontation with the administration over the missed deadline, and House Democrats limited their immediate reaction to a threat to hold hearings from House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Impeachment fight to take center stage at Dem debate The Hill's Morning Report — Arrest of Giuliani associates triggers many questions Overnight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Planned Parenthood charges into 2020 | PhRMA CEO warns against Pelosi drug pricing bill | Medicaid work requirements costing states millions MORE (D-N.Y.) and Appropriations housing subcommittee Chairman David PriceDavid Eugene PriceDeLauro enters race to succeed Lowey as Appropriations chief A dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal Yes, President Trump, we do have a homelessness crisis and you're making it harder for us to address MORE (D-N.C.).

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Privately, a handful of officials, lawmakers and interested parties on the island talked about the need to avoid provoking White House reprisals against federal administration officials who could speed up disbursement of funds.

And interested parties in Puerto Rico are wary of exacerbating political rhetoric and endangering a deal on an extension to federal Medicaid funding for the territory, which is due to run out Sept. 30.

Medicaid is a crucial component in Puerto Rico’s health care system that has been funded by temporary federal grants since the inception of the Affordable Care Act.

"Without congressional action to avoid the Medicaid Cliff, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will be at risk of losing their health coverage come September 30th," said Jim O'Drobinak, president of the Medicaid and Medicare Advantage Products Association of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit industry group for health care providers.

"This looming crisis underscores the long-standing federal health care funding inequities people on the island have suffered for far too long. It's time for lawmakers in Washington to work together on a bipartisan, comprehensive solution for both Medicare and Medicaid that provides the people of Puerto Rico with the care they deserve," O'Drobinak added.

The last congressional deal to re-up the Medicaid system two years ago is widely viewed as a political coup for González-Colón and has become the template to achieve funding goals while avoiding confrontation with the administration.

Still, two years after the hurricane, many opponents of the Trump White House are losing patience with what they view as slow-walking of the funds, pointing out that other states and territories have received their allocations under the same bill.

"We demand a pathway forward for the families still waiting to return to their homes, and for the administration to release the funding. It is held hostage. We will not stand by silently while the administration systematically denies the people of Puerto Rico of crucial assistance," said Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHouse to vote on resolution condemning Trump's Syria pullback Rand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter Senators ask Treasury to probe Brazilian meatpacker with major US footprint MORE (D-N.J.) Wednesday in an event attended by Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandLobbying world 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), as well as Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Jesús García (D-Ill.).

While some Democrats complained that blowing past the Sept. 4 deadline could constitute a violation of congressional intent, House Democratic leadership has not yet publicly moved forward on ways to compel the administration to deliver.

But some members are looking for avenues to take direct action to accelerate the release of funds.

"I believe we have rights under the Impoundment Act because you can only hold on to those funds for a certain period of time, and I've heard from appropriators that there may be some action taken through that," said Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Buttigieg targets Warren, Sanders on health care ahead of debate | Judge overturns ObamaCare transgender protections | Poll sees support drop for 'Medicare for All' Hispanic voters push campaigns to address gun violence Ginsburg, Patrick Dempsey among honorees at Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program MORE (D-Fla.).

"And of course, we have the 2020 budget coming up that that could have some opportunities to be able to put more pressure on them," added Soto.