Hispanic Caucus urges more coronavirus care for older, vulnerable Latinos in U.S., Puerto Rico

"It's important to note that Medicare Advantage plans enroll 55 percent of Hispanics" in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., said.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., during a news conference at a drive-thru testing site for COVID-19 on March 20, 2020, at the Doris Ison Health Center in Miami.Wilfredo Lee / AP

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By Nicole Acevedo

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are urging Trump administration officials to expand access to care in the United States and Puerto Rico as families, many of them vulnerable and older, battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., announced Wednesday she introduced legislation to "ensure that COVID-19 treatment is covered for all Medicare Advantage recipients." Her hope is to include the bill in the next coronavirus relief package.

Mucarsel-Powell said her legislation could help cover COVID-19 treatment costs for at least 22 million people in the U.S. and 600,000 in Puerto Rico enrolled in Medicare Advantage, who are mostly senior citizens or individuals living with disabilities. That's more than one third of all Medicare beneficiaries.

"COVID-19 also disproportionately affects communities of color. It's important to note that Medicare Advantage plans enroll 55 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of African Americans," she said.

At least $30 billion was disbursed to hospitals and other health care providers through the first coronavirus relief package, based on their share of 2019 Medicare fee-for-service spending. But that calculation hurt many health care systems in areas such as Miami and Puerto Rico that are more reliant on Medicare Advantage plans, offered by private companies that contract with Medicare.

While lawmakers are expected to vote on the new coronavirus relief package sometime in the next two weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) still need to assign $48 billion more to hospitals and other health care providers under the first Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, as well as an additional $75 billion appropriated the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, alongside 12 other members, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma on Wednesday to request they "consider capturing Medicare Advantage and Medicaid costs" in order to "best support Puerto Rico’s health care infrastructure during this unprecedented pandemic."

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.

Almost half of the U.S. territory’s residents receive health coverage through Medicaid, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Against this backdrop, members of the Hispanic Caucus are urging Azar and Verma "to avoid exacerbating the existing public health and economic crisis in Puerto Rico" by including Medicare Advantage and Medicaid costs in forthcoming allocations.

As an unintended consequence of imposing a strict islandwide curfew early on, hospitals across Puerto Rico have been experiencing low occupancy rates. This has resulted in massive layoffs across hospitals on the island — even as experts argue Puerto Rico has not reached its COVID-19 infection peak.

"Due to the lack of hospital revenue in Puerto Rico, significant layoffs of hospital staff are anticipated in the next weeks," the letter from the Hispanic Caucus reads. "While the government of Puerto Rico has taken steps to contain the spread of the virus, the federal government must ensure that it is providing all available relief it can to Puerto Rico with the goal of stabilizing its health care system, including the retention of health care workers," as well as providing "the tools necessary during this pandemic to sustain the availability of beds, testing and surge capacity to care for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico."

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