Gov. Wanda Vázquez blames the pandemic and the Fiscal Oversight Board, but some talk of “government malpractice.”
Puerto Rico faces losing nearly $1 billion in Medicaid funds if they are not spent by September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. The funds were initially destined to add 220,000 new users to the program to the nearly 1.4 million Puerto Ricans who already receive Medicaid benefits. In the middle of the political finger-pointing, some even argue that the waste of the funds could mean a major catastrophe for all the beneficiaries on the island.
Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez says the funds have not been spent because of complications caused by the pandemic and the red tape of the Fiscal Oversight Board. On September 1st, Vázquez wrote a letter to US congressional leadership saying that $1.054 billion of the $2.196 billion allocated for Medicaid during this federal fiscal year were not going to be spent by the end of the month, and asking for authorization to use them starting in October.
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Former Governor and Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) revealed the contents of the letter a few days later and blamed both the Governor and current resident commissioner Jenniffer González for the possibility of funds being lost.
Acevedo, who is running for Resident Commissioner, said González knew since July that the funds could be lost and did nothing about it.
“The first responsibility of a Resident Commissioner is to make sure that Congressional appropriations reach the people without delay and without excuses,” he said on September 10 on talk show Nación Z. “It is inconceivable that Jenniffer González knew about this unforgivable negligence and did absolutely nothing.”
“This is a case of government malpractice,” he concluded.
A Push for Retroactive Spending
This Sunday, Resident Commissioner González said that she is making arrangements so that the money can be used in other health services, such as the purchase of insulin and glucose monitors, or to pay for the transportation of patients and uncovered vaccines.
González said that conversations are being conducted with the Health Insurance Administration (ASES by its initials in Spanish) to find a way in which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) could use the funds retroactively.
“What we are looking for is that we be allowed to use this rollover of funds once the program is reauthorized to use them perhaps in other things, but for what we had it, it will not be possible,” González said.
This is the first year the island had received an increase of these funds, and was slated to receive about $2.9 billion annually in Medicaid funds in the upcoming federal fiscal year.
The Problem in Washington, D.C.
On September 10, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) promised to talk with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and explain the impact the loss of funds would have on Puerto Rico. Last Thursday, the congresswoman said she had talked to Pelosi on the phone, and the Democratic leader had communicated that it would be very difficult for Republicans to reauthorize those funds in case they were lost.
The reason, Velázquez explained, was that Republicans are in a hurry to reach an agreement to extend the current budget in the next few days, and therefore would not like to include any additional matter. The extension of the current budget for a few months would prevent a partial shutdown of the federal government starting October 1st.
“The window is tightly closed,” Velázquez said to El Nuevo Día. “If there were time, I think something could have been done.”
Velázquez said González will have to battle with Republican colleagues in Congress to prevent the funds from being canceled.
González also said Pelosi vowed to bring up the issue in early 2021 if Democrats retain their majority in the House of Representatives as expected.