Michael J. Melendez and Dr. Jaime R. Torres (opinion contributors for The Hill) write about the chilling reality of Puerto Rico’s healthcare.
Congress reconvenes this week and will tackle many issues that are crucial for our country. Among them is the imminent man-made crisis facing Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories when funding from the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act and the Affordable Care Act runs out at the end of September and December 2019.
For Puerto Rico, this means that starting Oct. 1, 2019, the beginning of FY 2020, the island would only receive an estimated $366.7 million in federal Medicaid matching dollars to cover its Medicaid beneficiaries. To be clear, 1.6 million people in Puerto Rico are reliant upon Medicaid – that is nearly half the entire population of the island. Such a drastic cut in funding would not adequately support the needs of beneficiaries and could worsen health outcomes for the island’s people.
For years, Puerto Rico’s second-class status as a territory of the United States has exacerbated the island’s humanitarian crisis. Because of antiquated policies, such as those on Puerto Rico’s federal funding support for Medicaid, residents’ health care has been gravely limited, which has perpetuated serious, systematic problems.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the people of Puerto Rico fighting back against the problems plaguing their island. The news stories coming from the island have been surprising yet thrilling. More than half a million people took to the streets demanding an end to government corruption and influence-peddling that culminated in the resignation of the governor. This was democracy in action; nothing short of accountability and transparency from their government would be accepted.
Now is the right time for Congress to address the inherent inequality of Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico and all U.S. territories. Arbitrary and unfair regulatory hurdles set up decades ago by Congress have perpetuated a lack of accountability and transparency and must be changed to meet the needs of the people today.
Critical for advancing this goal, the “Community Health Investment, Modernization, and Excellence Act” (H.R. 2328) includes the Territories Health Care Improvement Act, which would make substantive changes to how Medicaid is administered in territories like Puerto Rico. If approved by Congress, H.R. 2328 could go on to provide $12 billion to secure the Medicaid program on the island for four more years.
The people of Puerto Rico have clearly demonstrated their appetite for transparency and accountability, and the mandatory safeguards written into the law ensure that federal funding would always be used to benefit patients.
H.R. 2328’s robust monitoring mechanism for strict oversight of federal Medicaid funds includes much-needed provisions that would better ensure federal funding dollars for Medicaid are used properly. To start, H.R. 2328 would authorize the Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Inspector General to perform audits of all federal Medicaid funding on an annual basis, including work plans to monitor and/or investigate contracting practices related to the Puerto Rico Medicaid program. The Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services would oversee all contracts awarded utilizing Medicaid funding. Puerto Rico itself would establish a system for tracking amounts paid by the federal government, as well as local matching of Medicaid funds, and would have information available with respect to each quarter. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office would issue a report on contracting oversight and approval for the Puerto Rico Medicaid program no later than two years after the date of enactment.
As is clear after weeks of protests and years of unrest, Puerto Rico can no longer afford to operate under the status quo. Such oversight measures proposed by H.R. 2328 are badly needed to help set the island’s Medicaid program up for success and better serve the millions of residents reliant upon health care. But all of this won’t happen if Congress doesn’t act now.
Puerto Ricans are citizens of this country, and they cannot be held accountable for the egregious actions of elected officials and the contractors working on their behalf. Those actions should be condemned, and the right people prosecuted. But absent any congressional action, it may be the population that is dependent on Medicaid for health care that pays the ultimate price for the wrongdoings of their leaders. If Congress does not pass H.R. 2328, millions of people could become uninsured and sick, further sinking the island into a humanitarian crisis.
Michael J. Melendez, LMSW is Principal of MJM CONTIGO, LLC. And was the former the Associate Regional Administrator of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Division of Medicaid and Children’s Health Operations for the New York Regional Office. Dr. Jaime R. Torres was the former regional director of the US Department of Health & Human Services, Region II—serving New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. They are board members Latinos for Healthcare Equity.