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Congress Needs to Act Now to Help Puerto Rico | Commentary

By Cristóbal J. Alex Democrats heavily courted the Latino vote in the 2012 election, successfully turning out a record 11.2 million Latinos. Latinos — who accounted for 8.4 percent of the vote — did not only help President Barack Obama win key battleground states, they also helped to elect many members of Congress. But now that the campaign is over, the same people who asked for our help, won’t offer any in return. They have forgotten about Latinos — particularly the more than 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico.  

Puerto Rico is currently facing its biggest fiscal and economic crisis in history. The García Padilla administration inherited a debt burden of $70 billion and an annual deficit of $2.2 billion, an economy that had been in recession for seven years, and an unemployment rate of 16 percent. The governor has tackled key challenges to strengthen the Commonwealth’s economy and get its fiscal house in order, but Puerto Rico can’t do it alone.  

The García Padilla administration first tried to pass a local measure that would allow an orderly process to bring debt relief parity for Puerto Rico’s public corporations. The local law was overturned by the U.S. District Court, stating that only Congress has that authority, and is currently pending appeal.

Related: White House a Maybe on Letting Puerto Rico Declare Bankruptcy

Gov. García Padilla is asking Congress to allow Puerto Rico’s municipalities to have access to Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Access to Chapter 9 would safeguard the island’s economic future by ensuring a sustainable resolution to its debt that would provide a legal framework to all parties, while safeguarding essential services to Puerto Ricans. Despite the great urgency of the economic situation in Puerto Rico, Congress hasn’t moved to pass the bill.  

If this didn’t matter, Republican candidates would not be weighing in. During his April visit to the island, Jeb Bush announced his support for granting Puerto Rico access to Chapter 9. I commend Governor Bush for recognizing that this important issue transcends politics and has a real and profound impact in the lives of Puerto Ricans everywhere.  

Unfortunately, Chapter 9 isn’t the only issue where the federal government has abandoned Puerto Rico. The island’s current healthcare system crisis has been met with silence and crossed arms in Washington. Meager federal funding is putting the island’s healthcare system in such jeopardy, we could see it begin to collapse as soon as June 1.

Related: Puerto Rico Needs Reform, Not Bankruptcy

While Puerto Ricans pay the same Medicare taxes as mainland residents, they get less – much less –federal healthcare funding. The island’s Medicaid program receives 70 percent lower reimbursement rates and is capped; Medicare Advantage is paid 60 percent of the average rate while having the highest MA enrollment in the U.S.; and Medicare reimbursement rates are 40 percent lower.  

The health care system is further jeopardized by the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ recent 11 percent cut to Puerto Rico’s MA premiums, which will go into effect next year. While the struggling island faces cuts, the 50 states saw an average three percent increase. On top of that, the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid grant to the island will run out in 2017.

Related: Puerto Rico at a Crossroads

Sixty percent of the island’s population, more than 2 million Puerto Rican-Americans, receive care through these programs. The healthcare industry represents 20 percent of the island’s GDP. A collapse would not only jeopardize care for millions of U.S. citizens but result in a dramatic blow to an already fragile economy. The government would have to make significant cuts to much-needed services or increase spending to provide access to quality care, an unlikely option in Puerto Rico’s difficult financial state.  

The island’s troubles have driven Puerto Ricans to relocate to the mainland. For the first time in history, more Boricuas live in the continental U.S. than in Puerto Rico. That means politicians should be worried about next year’s election. Latinos will be a deciding factor for who sets up shop at the White House and in Congress. If the quality of life of these Americans doesn’t matter to Washington, then the next elections should.  

Washington can’t afford to turn its back on Puerto Rico. Congress needs to act now to give Puerto Rico access to Chapter 9 and save its healthcare system. Time is of the essence, the future of 3.5 million Americans — and their 2016 decisions — are on the line.  

Cristóbal J. Alex is the President of the Latino Victory Project.

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