Democratic lawmakers want answers to Trump administration's coronavirus response in Puerto Rico

"As the pandemic and its effects continue to test the economic and health care systems around the world, we are deeply concerned" about Puerto Rico, lawmakers wrote.
Image: Puerto Rico
A traveler wearing a mask waits in line at a security checkpoint at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 18, 2020.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

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By Nicole Acevedo

A group of worried Democratic lawmakers gave Vice President Mike Pence two weeks to appease some of the concerns they have over President Donald Trump and his administration's response to the coronavirus in Puerto Rico.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., alongside Reps. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., Raul Grijalva, D-N.M., and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, sent a letter to Pence Friday in his "capacity as head of the White House Task Force on Coronavirus" asking for information about specific steps being taken to help Puerto Rico survive the pandemic.

As of Friday morning, Puerto Rico has 378 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The disease has killed at least 15 people.

Warren, Velazquez, Grijalva and Castro are asking Pence how the administration will make sure that people in Puerto Rico receive the benefits and assistance "to which they are entitled" under the nearly $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, known as the CARES Act.

They're also seeking answers on their "plans to ensure that economic and health assistance related to COVID-19 will be disbursed on an equitable and timely basis" and " ensure that the island has sufficient resources to meet the health needs related to COVID-19."

Lawmakers said their concerns mainly stem from a series of actions the Trump administration has taken "to delay and impede the island’s economic and health care disaster recovery" following the 2017 Hurricane Maria and January's multiple earthquakes.

Last year, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, defended his agency after intentionally stalling hurricane reconstruction funds for Puerto Rico. Two months ago, the White House strongly opposed a bill to provide Puerto Rico $4.89 billion in after more than 1,000 earthquakes and aftershocks rattle the island.

Island has taken action

Puerto Rico has taken swift actions to fight the spread of the disease, including imposing a strict islandwide curfew starting several weeks ago, as well as banning cruise ships, closing schools and all nonessential businesses. They also created their own $787 million financial stimulus package to help alleviate some of the pandemic's economic impact.

The efforts come as local officials focus on preventing Puerto Rico's already fragile health care system and economy from collapsing.

Experts, however, have warned that drastic measures might still fall short.

Access to resources and medical services has been a problem in Puerto Rico well before the coronavirus outbreak. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 72 of the island’s 78 municipalities are considered to be medically underserved and face “unmet health care needs.” The gap in health care access affects at least 1.7 million people, according to lawmakers.

"The main concern is whether this pandemic would be the last straw that causes the collapse of our health care system because our system has been deteriorating," Dr. Victor Ramos, president of Puerto Rico's Physicians Association, previously told NBC News.

The island has also been grappling with negotiating the restructuring of debt with creditors owed $120 billion in bond and pension obligations, after the Puerto Rican government declared the debt unpayable in 2015 and filed for the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history in 2017.

Miguel Soto-Class, founder and president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank, recently told NBC News that "Puerto Rico is going to get clobbered by this pandemic, and I'm very worried that the government is saying it'll be easy to come back from this when that's not the case. It will be particularly devastating for small businesses and locally led NGOs."

"It's another nail in the coffin for small and local businesses in Puerto Rico," he said.

Worrisome federal delays

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) acknowledged it failed to adequately respond to Hurricane Maria after lacking appropriate staffing and coordination. FEMA also failed to rebuild the only health center performing the functions of a hospital in Vieques, Puerto Rico in a timely manner.

It was more than two years after Hurricane Maria that FEMA approved nearly $40 million to help Vieques rebuild the hospital after 13-year-old Jaideliz Moreno Ventura died due to "lack of proper medical equipment and facilities in Vieques, where she lived, to treat flu-like symptoms.”

"As the pandemic and its effects continue to test the economic and health care systems around the world, we are deeply concerned about the extent to which Puerto Rico’s existing economic, infrastructure, and public health gaps will exacerbate its impacts," the members of Congress wrote in the letter.

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