(Bloomberg) — Puerto Rico’s elected officials have a message for their counterparts on the mainland: Fix health care funding disparities or care for our poor and elderly in your hospitals.
Almost 70 percent of the island’s 3.5 million people get health care through Medicaid, Medicare and Medicare Advantage. Funding formulas for these federal programs shortchange Puerto Rico because it’s not a state, commonwealth officials say.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens “who can hop on a plane and go to Florida, Texas and the Carolinas and get full Medicaid funding and other federal benefits,” said Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress.
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As Puerto Rico runs out of a cash to pay its $70 billion debt, commonwealth and U.S. officials are warning that an economic and fiscal crisis could become a humanitarian one. Puerto Rico, where 46 percent of citizens live in poverty, gets a lower percentage of federal funds for Medicaid than 26 other states even though none comes close to its levels of poverty. Making up for inadequate federal funding has contributed to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, commonwealth officials say.
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Puerto Rico racked up more debt than any state except California and New York to balance budgets as the island’s economy has shrunk 15 percent since 2006. Commonwealth obligations have been trading at distressed levels for two years. A tax-exempt general-obligation security with an 8 percent coupon changed hands Dec. 3 at an average yield of 11.2 percent, for an equivalent taxable yield of 18.5 percent for top earners.
As part of a four-part plan to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal and economic crisis announced in October, the Obama administration is asking Congress to fix the commonwealth’s funding disparity under Medicaid. The U.S. Treasury is also pressing Congress to give Puerto Rico sweeping powers to reduce its debt burden through bankruptcy, provide fiscal oversight and give Puerto Ricans access to the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Delays in health care reimbursements have forced some medical centers to close floors and eliminate specialized services, according to congressional testimony on Oct. 22 by Antonio Weiss. Weiss is the Treasury Department’s point person on Puerto Rico.
Doctors are leaving at a rate of one per day, part of the record 84,000 people who left the island in 2014, Weiss said. Fewer doctors mean patients wait longer to see specialists and more visits to emergency rooms, said Ricardo Rivera, executive director for the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration.
“We have people who have to wait nine months for a specialist,” Rivera said. “That’s a crisis.”
So far, the Republican-controlled Congress is unmoved. Legislation introduced by Pierluisi to improve Puerto Rico’s treatment under federal health programs and give the commonwealth’s agencies access to bankruptcy has stalled.
Equalizing federal health care funding and extending programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit to Puerto Rico would cost $30 billion and reward its fiscal recklessness, said Orrin Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s Finance Committee.
“We will very likely have to consider ideas to alter the means by which we allocate federal health funds to Puerto Rico.” Hatch said in a Nov. 30 news release. “However, if we decide to go that route, it is essential that we move forward in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Medicaid spending in Puerto Rico totaled about $2.8 billion last year. The federal government contributed $1.6 billion, or 57 percent of the cost.