A report by Nicole Acevedo for NBC News.
Reps. Nydia Velázquez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and nine other Democratic members of Congress are urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to “guarantee that Puerto Rico is treated equally to the states in any of the upcoming coronavirus stimulus packages.”
Reps. Darren Soto, D-Fla., José Serrano, D-N.Y, Raúl Grijalva, D-N.M., Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., Albio Sires, D-N.J., Caroline Maloney, D-N.Y., Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., and Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., joined Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez of New York Monday in sending a letter to House leadership, outlining several of the island’s ongoing issues as it responds to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Even before COVID-19, Puerto Rico was suffering immensely from earthquakes earlier this year, longstanding economic and physical damage from Hurricane Maria and decades of economic neglect,” Velázquez told NBC News in a statement.
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez said last week that the U.S. territory received $2.2 billion from the U.S. Treasury Department as part of the coronavirus stimulus package signed into law in March. But the lawmakers argue more needs to be done to ensure the island is equipped to survive the pandemic.
In the letter obtained by NBC News, the members urge that future coronavirus stimulus packages give Puerto Rico access to “robust funding for nutritional assistance” and “debt forgiveness of community disaster loans.” Congress should also create a “legislative fix” to make sure that nonprofits registered locally in Puerto Rico can be eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, lawmakers said.
Access to resources and medical services has been a problem in Puerto Rico well before the coronavirus outbreak. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 72 of the island’s 78 municipalities are considered to be medically underserved and face “unmet health care needs.” The gap in health care access affects at least 1.7 million people.
Against this backdrop, lawmakers are urging House leadership to eliminate “the Medicaid cap” limiting the island’s access to federal health care funds and make sure Puerto Rico has access to “appropriate federal medical assistance.”
Puerto Rico has also been grappling with negotiating the restructuring of debt with creditors owed $120 billion in bond and pension obligations, after the Puerto Rican government declared the debt unpayable in 2015 and filed for the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history in 2017.
On an island where roughly 1.4 million U.S. citizens live below the poverty line — many of them children, pregnant women, elders and people with disabilities — lawmakers are demanding that both the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are expanded to allow Puerto Ricans to fully participate in such federal programs.
“Reports of massive layoffs in Puerto Rican hospitals have started to surface due to low occupation rates as an unintended consequence,” of imposing a strict islandwide curfew early on, lawmakers say in their letter. “Yet, experts argue that Puerto Rico has not reached its COVID infection peak.”
They argue Congress must provide assistance to the frontline health care workers on the island as well as funds to hospitals in order to “ensure the continued employment of these essential workers” and provide ventilators and protective personal equipment. There are currently about 800 ventilators to serve a population of 3.2 million.
Lawmakers also reminded the House leadership that more than 1,000 quakes that jolted the island during the first two weeks of the year disrupted the lives of thousands of Puerto Ricans living in southern towns, weakening and destroying many buildings. They are calling on Congress to “allocate the funds for the island’s reconstruction post-earthquakes as approved by the House” in February.
“As Congress begins the next phase of legislation with help for states and localities, I’ll be working hand-in-glove with Speaker Pelosi on solutions that address the unique challenges facing Puerto Rico and the 3.5 million U.S. citizens who live there,” said Velázquez.