Alarming shortage of specialists to care for Puerto Rico veterans
SAN JUAN — The population of veterans in Puerto Rico, which easily reaches 93,000, does not have the needed number of specialists to receive the healthcare they require, particularly the 65 percent of veterans who are over 65 years old.
The information was announced Monday during the first public hearing that the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health held on the island since its creation in 1946, and where Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González participated along with Reps. Phil Roe (R-TN) and Brad Wenstrup (R-OH).
“We are facing many complaints, in terms of it taking veterans three and four months to get an appointment,” González said, stressing the lack of surgeons, oncologists, dermatologists and other healthcare professionals to attend the colossal population of veterans on the island.
Among other concerns that González detailed, she highlighted the state of some of the eight clinics under the Veterans Hospital (VA) system, particularly the health center at the municipality of Arecibo, where veterans receive treatment under a tent at a parking lot.
At the “Field Hearing: VA Healthcare: Maximizing Resources in Puerto Rico,” the president of the Puerto Rico College of Physicians & Surgeons, Víctor Ramos, noted in his statement that the positions in the VA’s health care system remain “open”; however, “bureaucratic obstacles” interrupt the hiring process.
“Although the government has incentivized doctors to remain in Puerto Rico with special tax rates to stay or return to the island, it is necessary to do more to stop emigration and bring them back,” Ramos said.
According to data provided by Ramos, a doctor a day left the island in 2016; while last year, before Hurricane Maria struck, 700 doctors had out-migrated “and a greater number is estimated to emigrate this year. Out of the 400 cardiologists in Puerto Rico 11 years ago, today we have less than 100.”
“What we are seeking is [to evaluate how] resources are assigned to the Veterans Department for the hiring of health professionals here in Puerto Rico [so] we don’t keep losing them,” González said, emphasizing that the federal government allocated more than $93 million to restore the island’s clinics and $11 million to install mobile units.
Puerto Rico mental health critical
At the same hearing, Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez acknowledged that suicide attempts had seen “a worrisome increase” after Hurricane Maria in September.
“The mental health and suicide hotline received 26,634 calls between October and December 2017. Of these, 9,000 calls expressed suicidal behavior; 6,733 verbalized a plan to end their lives; and 2,206 had the intention [of committing suicide],” the official explained.
Rodríguez added that the number of calls in January rose by roughly 3,000 compared with December last year. Of these, 26 percent were suicide-related. Before Maria, the mental health hotline received about 200 calls a day and now receives more than 500.
“There is no doubt in my mind that much remains to be done in that area. We must continue to work with the stigma associated with mental health illnesses and continue to transform medical care to see mental health as part of a system that works together and not separate,” the secretary said.