Dec 21 The U.S. Congress should consider
overhauling its system of benefits for disabled people in Puerto
Rico, who get almost no government help, according to a new
report by a task force addressing the island's economic crisis.
The report, released Tuesday, cited a December 9 Reuters
investigation that detailed the scant support for island
residents with severe mental and physical problems.
Most get nothing. Those who do get benefits receive an
average of $74 a month - about a tenth of what the U.S. gives
the disabled in its 50 states. Reuters also revealed wide
disparities in support among U.S. territories.
Read the Special Report here: reut.rs/2hg0vDR
Sen. Orrin Hatch - a Republican from Utah who heads the
bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto
Rico - did not immediately respond to requests for comment
The task force recommended that Congress consider providing
Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories the same Supplemental
Security Income (SSI) benefits it grants to the states.
Four of five U.S. territories - Puerto Rico, Guam, American
Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands - have been excluded from SSI
since the program launched in the 1970s. The fifth territory,
the Northern Mariana Islands, gets the same SSI benefits as a
state, with an average payment of $560 monthly, in part because
it negotiated its territory status at about the same time
Congress enacted the SSI program.
Disabled Puerto Ricans, by contrast, receive much less
through a nearly forgotten program administered by the
Administration of Children and Families (ACF), a division of the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly half of
Puerto Rico's disabled residents live in poverty - twice the
rate of those in the 50 states.
The disabled in Guam receive an average of $164, and in the
Virgin Islands, $176. Disabled people in American Samoa get
SSI offers disabled residents of U.S. states up to $733 each
month and pays an average of $540.
As an alternative to giving the territories SSI benefits,
the task force suggested Congress could increase benefits
through ACF. Federal funding for the program has been capped
since 1996 and is not indexed for inflation.
The panel also recommended that ACF publicly release
up-to-date information about the benefits paid to disabled
citizens of U.S. territories.
When Reuters first requested comment on benefits for the
disabled in Puerto Rico, ACF declined to make anyone available
because "no one is completely versed in all the details," said
spokesman Pat Fisher.
On Wednesday, Fisher declined to comment on the task force
recommendations. "We cannot offer an opinion on proposed
policy," he said. "We only carry out approved policy."
A 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office, the
investigative arm of Congress, found that if Puerto Rico
received SSI, eligibility would expand ten-fold from nearly
34,500 in 2011 to 354,000 people. The federal government's
payments to the island would skyrocket from $24 million to as
much as $1.8 billion annually.
The task force also made recommendations about how to
improve health care in Puerto Rico, which the group described as
"a serious and urgent issue."
For decades, the U.S. offered lower payments to Puerto Rico
under the federally sponsored Medicare and Medicaid insurance
programs, which cover most people on the island. The Medicaid
insurance program for the poor, for example, has had its funding
capped by Washington for decades, spurring island officials to
borrow heavily through municipal bonds.
That contributed to what is now the largest municipal debt
crisis in U.S. history. An estimated one-third of Puerto Rico's
$70 billion of outstanding debt stems from bonds issued to shore
up healthcare funding.
Reuters reported in October that Puerto Rico's physicians
are fleeing the island's financially strapped healthcare system
for high-paying and more stable jobs in the 50 states. The
resulting shortage of doctors has exacerbated waits for
appointments on the island to longer than 18 months in some
Read the Special Report here: reut.rs/2e4T00o
The most-cited reason for giving Puerto Rico unequal
treatment in Medicaid and other programs is because Puerto
Ricans do not pay federal income taxes. Some members of the task
force believe that may warrant lower allocations for social
welfare on the island, according to the report. Other members
All members, however, agreed "more equitable treatment
should still be considered," according to the report.
That would reduce the incentive for Puerto Rico residents to
migrate to U.S. states, as they have in large numbers for
decades, leaving behind a more vulnerable population.
The panel urged Congress to begin addressing the funding
issues early next year, and suggested federal funding of the
island's Medicaid program be "more closely tied to the size and
needs of the territory's low-income population."
(Reporting by Robin Respaut; editing by Brian Thevenot)