Sunday, November 17, 2019

Puerto Rico governor focused on federal funds, restructuring process

By on October 31, 2019

Gov. Wanda Vázquez (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

During convention speech, stresses need for commonwealth gov’t to regain Washington’s trust

SAN JUAN — Nearly a month before Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding ratio reverts back to pre-Hurricane Maria levels, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced assured that her administration was focused on improving the island’s reputation, which has been tarnished in the eyes of Congress and federal agencies, with the goal of receiving more Medicaid and Medicare funding.

Vázquez made the related remarks during her speech at the Puerto Rico Hospital Association’s annual convention, where she also underscored the island’s debt restructuring process and the relationship between her administration and the federally created Financial Oversight and Management Board.

“It is true that we have been in constant communication with the [fiscal] board about the debt adjustment plan of the commonwealth, and we are satisfied with the process so far. We also continue to work in a collaborative way, defending, always, the interests of our people, while at the same time we find alternatives and recommendations to comply with our obligations in a reasonable and effective way,” Vázquez said. 

The governor has come under scrutiny for not opposing strongly the pension cuts included in the commonwealth’s debt adjustment plan. Also, sectors such as the workers union for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority have urged her to not approve any laws that make way to the cuts or the electric bill charge included in the utility’s debt restructuring agreement.

While Vázquez said her administration has “a good relationship with the board and that is something that wasn’t there,” she also acknowledged there are disagreements but said there was no need to have public spats. 

The governor used as an analogy a person taking out a loan and the bank deserving repayment to argue that Puerto Rico must service its debt, which totals some $72 billion, adding that she can think of a better course of action to address the liabilities because she doesn’t have to think about losing votes, as she has vowed to not run in the 2020 elections. 

One of the reasons the governor gave to not dismiss the island’s debt is to not harm Puerto Rico’s credibility, which she stressed was one of the main reasons the administration of President Trump is reluctant to provide more federal funds. She said that in her recent visit to Washington, D.C.—in part to lobby for an extension to the temporary 100 percent Medicaid matching rate—the issue of corruption often came up, especially in light of the arrests in July of the former head and contractors of the Health Insurance Administration, which manages the island’s Medicaid funds through the government’s Vital healthcare program. 

The governor recalled that during her tenure as Justice secretary, the government implemented the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, a joint project between the Health and Justice departments. 

Although only mentioned once during her address, unlike the credibility issues, Vázquez posited that the disparity in federal healthcare funding is related to Puerto Rico’s political status as an unincorporated territory. The governor stressed that the argument needs to be that Puerto Ricans deserve the same treatment residents of the 50 states.