WASHINGTON, DC. -- President Donald Trump has put Puerto Rico straight in his Twitter crosshairs in an attempt to tie the island's financial situation to partisan budget negotiations on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday night, Trump tweeted that "Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disastrous #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars. Sad!" On Thursday morning, he tweeted that Democrats "want to shut government if we don't bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!"
Trump’s tweets come as island officials have been lobbying members of Congress to close a Medicare and Medicaid shortfall and earmark funds for healthcare coverage under the current budget negotiations. These must be agreed upon by Friday to avoid a government shutdown.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico receives less than half in Medicare funds than what the 50 states receive, and even less in Medicaid. The high cost of healthcare funding amid years of recession and retrenchment in the island is one of the reasons for the island's spiraling financial situation.
Under Obamacare, Puerto Rico received a one-time $6.4 billion for Medicaid to be spent through 2019, but the island is expected to exhaust those funds by the end of this year, and up to 900,000 residents – more than half of the island’s Medicaid enrollment – could lose their healthcare coverage when those monies run out.
Trump’s remarks were met by a storm of criticism on Twitter. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who on Wednesday spoke in Washington, D.C. at the Heritage Foundation in support of fiscal conservative issues, tweeted, “The American citizens of Puerto Rico deserve to be treated fairly. Health and civil rights are not partisan issues.”
Carlos Mercader, the director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), the island government’s representative in Washington, tweeted out that “93,000 veterans from #PuertoRico have fought for our liberties and freedom. #PuertoRico doesn't need a bailout, we need #EqualTreatment.”
Former San Juan Mayor Hernan Padilla replied to the president's tweet, saying 3.5 million U.S. citizens in P.R. "deserve equal treatment."
Federico de Jesús, a consultant, former Obama administration official and PRFFA deputy director, said the president’s comments represent a fundamental lack of understanding of the U.S. Puerto Rico and its issues.
“This is what happens when governance by Tweet replaces sound policymaking. Just hours before Trump's tweet, his own HHS Secretary sent a letter to Congress saying that Puerto Rico needs at least $900 million before the island's health system collapses,” de Jesús told NBC Latino.
“If (Congress) includes extending current Obamacare funding under Medicaid for Puerto Rico, that wouldn't be a bailout to the Commonwealth, it would actually be saving money for state and federal taxpayers who would otherwise face an even more massive influx of Puerto Ricans moving to the US, where health care is 3 to 4 times more expensive than in the Island," said De Jesús. "It's time for the President to fulfill his promise of providing healthcare to all, and stop scapegoating Puerto Rico for his own unrelated failures.”
Though Trump tweeted about bailing out Puerto Rico with "your" taxes, Puerto Rico has been part of the U.S. since it was won from the Spanish in the Spanish-American War, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Since Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, Puerto Ricans who live in the island don't pay federal taxes but pay the same level of Social Security, Medicare, and payroll taxes as residents of the 50 states. However, unlike the states, island residents are ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or the Earned Income Tax Credit.
A bipartisan fiscal control board that was formed by the Obama White House and Congress is overseeing Puerto Rico's financial situation. The island faces extensive debt payments even amid cutbacks to its pensions and a steep sales tax increases. Puerto Rico has seen a large exodus in recent years as many families have moved to the mainland U.S.
"Puerto Rico is about to capsize," said board member David Skeel recently.
The fiscal control board is expected to meet Friday to discuss fiscal plans for several of Puerto Rico's debt-ridden public entitities.