WASHINGTON, D.C. ― U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide additional resources and better coordinate efforts on the ground in the face of a growing public health crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricanes Irma and Maria to ensure the more than 3.5 million American citizens living there can safely access the quality health care they need.
Heinrich joined U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and a number of other senators in sending a letter to Acting Health and Human Services Secretary Don Wright.
“Even before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. territories, the islands’ health care system was suffering from the ongoing economic crisis. The islands are grappling with physician shortages, Medicaid programs facing an impending funding cliff, and widespread disparities in Federal health programs—and that was before hurricane season,” the lawmakers stated in a letter. “We are grateful for the public health emergency declaration in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but more can and should be done to help Americans impacted by these disasters.”
The senators stressed that much of the islands’ power and communication networks are out and, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), it will take months before power is fully restored. Hospitals have been forced to prioritize patients, ration services, and forgo elective surgeries.
“Given the devastation we described, we ask you to provide the necessary support to meet the immediate needs of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as provide long-term relief,” the letter continued. “It is imperative that we do all we can to prevent a large-scale public health crisis from developing by providing the high-level coordination and stewardship of federal resources.”
The lawmakers urged the administration to provide not only immediate relief to the islands’ but long-term relief as well, as the islands’ begin to recover. Specifically, the letter requests necessary funding and emergency support for the islands’ Medicaid programs along with assistance in coordinating and prioritizing electric restoration to hospitals, health clinics, nursing homes, and pharmacies.
As leading voices in Congress to help prevent the collapse of the islands’ health care system, the lawmakers argued that the U.S. territories’ “Medicaid cliff” will be exacerbated by the recent disasters. In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Medicaid program is subject to a block grant that will cap funding during recovery regardless of the greater demand.
“While the territories’ Medicaid programs received a one-time increase of $7.3 billion in federal funding to last through 2019, they are spending it at a faster rate than anticipated, with needs only expected to expand in the aftermath of these storms,” the letter stated.
The full text of the letter is below and is available here.