In the picture Marco Rubio, Republican Senator. (horizontal-x3)
In the picture Marco Rubio, Republican Senator. (AP)

Washington - A bipartisan agreement on the federal budget in the Senate, which is expected to be approved today, would allow full access to Puerto Rico to the Medicaid program, in order to revive its health system for two years and lay the foundations for rebuilding its power grid.

The deal announced by the Senate leadership to finance the federal budget during the next two years, could represent about $ 15 billion in direct allocations for the island, according to Republican Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), who is a member of the Committee on Appropriations.

If the measure overcomes objections that arise in the House, regarding other issues, Puerto Rico would directly receive $ 4.8 billion in Medicaid funds, as an allocation that would represent full access to the program, based on the emergency caused by Hurricane Maria.

Another $ 2 billion would go directly to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to rebuild its infrastructure, which 141 days after the cyclone still does not reach 28 percent of the population.

According to Senator Rubio, out of the $ 28 billion allocated to the Community Development Block Grant program of the federal Department of Housing -known as CDBG, and that allows infrastructure initiatives- about $ 11 billion would be destined –mostly- for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

By press time, the text of the resolution had not been disclosed, which will also include the levels of spendings for this and the next federal fiscal year, keeping the current budget running until March 23 while waiting for final budgetary details, and suspend the limit on the federal debt past this years midterm elections. 

But both Senator Rubio and the government of Ricardo Rosselló considered that there would have the same requirements as established by the resolution passed in the House in December, which requires periodic reports to the federal government on the recovery plan and that the Board certifies and endorses each project of $ 10 million or more.

The government of Puerto Rico is still struggling with the Federal Treasury to overcome restrictions and achieve the disbursement, in small amounts, of funds from a line of credit of over $ 4.9 billion approved in October for jurisdictions that have suffered loss of income due to natural disasters.

The measure that would advance this week -which also seeks to avoid a new partial federal government shutdown by midnight- offers another $ 4 billion in loans to jurisdictions that have faced natural disasters, as proposed by the original resolution passed last December in the House.

As part of the agreement, the Senate sought to approve the legislation last night. Then, the measure must go to the House, where it faces the opposition of conservative Republicans, for its cost, and the Democratic leadership, that expects an agreement with speaker Paul Ryan to start, as in the Senate, an open debate in the House on a measure that normalizes the lives of the 'dreamers', those who were brought to the United States by their parents.

The $ 4.8 billion in Medicaid funds for the next two years, as an emergency measure following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, is an initiative that Congress also approved for Louisiana, following Katrina, in 2005.

The funds will prevent the health system of Puerto Rico from falling -by the end of March or beginning of April- in a $ 1.2 billion annual fiscal cliff caused by the end of Obamacare Medicaid.

Because the temporary budget resolution passed on Tuesday in the House extended federal spending until March 23, without considering disaster relief, Puerto Rico may have been left without a legislative vehicle to advance Medicaid funds until then. 

"It would have been putting Puerto Rico between a rock and a hard place in terms of Medicaid," said the Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González, describing it as "a historic achievement that takes draws us out the fiscal cliff of Medicaid for two years."

Governor Rosselló said that the $ 4.8 billion -which would be added to the cap of about $ 322 million that the Island gets annually from the Medicaid program by permanent law- would represent a $ 1.2 billion annual budget relief, in reference to the money contributed by the government of Puerto Rico to its Mi Salud (My Health) plan.

But, faced with the fact that new Medicaid funds would have to be sought for the federal fiscal year that begins in October 2019, Rosselló indicated that he will examine how to reorder those allocations.

What is clear is that if the measure becomes law, the Governor may include the $ 2.4 billion in Medicaid funds that would be available for the rest of this federal fiscal year (from now to September) and the other $ 2.4 billion by 2018 -2019 in the revised fiscal plan that he has to submit to the Board on Monday.

Both the Governor and the Commissioner recognized the support of Senators from Florida, Republican Rubio, Democrat Bill Nelson and Democratic minority leader Charles Schumer (New York). But the Commissioner -although she has criticized him for excluding measures for the Island- said that at the end of the road she had the backing of Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (Utah), and of the House leadership, headed by Speaker Ryan.

Gonzalez recognized that originally the leader of the Senate Republican majority, Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), offered a Medicaid allocation for this federal fiscal year of only $ 950 million.

 The House had approved, as part of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), an allocation of $ 1 billion, but it excluded it in January from the final legislation.

Regarding Rubio’s confidence that the agreement in the Senate would guarantee $ 11 billion from CDBG for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Governor recalled that the senator is part of the Committeeon Appropriations.

"It has been hard work ... They seem to be favorable numbers to assist Puerto Rico," indicated Governor Rosselló in a telephone interview, thanking Congress for the "urgently needed" emergency relief. In writing, Rosselló attributed the achievement of funds for the Island to the Democrats of both houses of Congress.

"It should have been approved a long time ago," expressed Senator Nelson, noting that it is incredible that the Republican majority did not act until Puerto Rico was within a month of falling into a Medicaid fiscal cliff.

Power grid

The government of Puerto Rico, faced with continual restrictions and conditions of the federal government in accessing emergency funds, expects that the $ 2 billion allocated to rebuild the Island's power grid will be the initial spark to rebuild the system.

Commissioner González anticipates that a fourth resolution of allocations to attend disasters will be debated in Congress in April or May. In the third resolution of supplementary allocations, the key language that would allow FEMA to finance the work to rebuild the power grid is maintained and not only to repair the damaged part.

The Governor and the Commissioner stressed that the measure will allow Puerto Rico not to have to match the funds that are allocated through the US Army Corps of Engineers and for federal highways. And González said the CDBG program allows its funds to be matched -by 20 percent- with allocations from other federal programs.

"Almost all of our spending priorities for Puerto Rico are included in this agreement, counting two years of funding for Medicaid and additional money for infrastructure, hospitals, community health centers and work network repair," said Rubio.

The deal, according to Senator Rubio and Rosselló´s government, maintains the restrictions for the Board to certify recovery plans and allocations to the Island. "It is an issue that we are still trying to amend," to allude to a collaboration with the Board, not to give the government of Puerto Rico another layer of power to claim emergency funds, said a source close to the Governor.

The text of the resolution passed in the House proposes hundreds of millions of dollars to repair federal facilities on the Island, civilian and military, $ 30.9 million for the Job Corps program of Puerto Rico, and another $ 24 million in (Nutritional Assistance Program) NAP funds, said the Commissioner.

As part of the budget agreement, federal spendings increase by nearly $ 500 billion during two years.

The resolution passed last December in the House to address recent natural disasters -including the damage caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and forest fires in the west- reached $ 81 billion. Now, the measure is increased by billions of dollars.

Within the legislation, there will be about $ 15 billion in funds for the US Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate floods and channel rivers, among other infrastructure projects in states and territories affected by disasters.

The Senate had blocked the House resolution in December, considering it insufficient.

On Monday, the House limited itself to approve a resolution proposing to extend the federal budget until March 23 and increase Defense allocations. But the agreement in the Senate amends that legislation. 

In the House, the most conservative Republicans have been reluctant to the possible agreement of the senators and the leader of the Democratic minority, Nancy Pelosi (California), has asked Speaker Paul Ryan, as did McConnell in the Senate, to guarantee an open debate on a 'Dream Act', a legislation that encourages normalizing the lives of those undocumented who came to the US with their parents.

Pelosi spent 8 hours and seven minutes, consecutively, in the Lower House demanding, constantly, legislation in favor of the 'dreamers'.


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