Cases of alleged fraud against federal social security programs, which led to federal arrests this week, undermine Puerto Rico's efforts to prove transparency in the use of federal funds and affect the people who are genuinely entitled to such benefits.
This time, eight people were charged with fraud against the Social Security Administration in Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Attorney´s office in Puerto Rico. They have allegedly taken $14 million that should have been directed to the most vulnerable through Social Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Schemes that aim to illegally obtain Social Security payments undermine access to pensions for workers who have contributed during their working life to have a decent retirement. It also reduces health care options to those who cannot afford private plans.
Defrauding FEMA also delays the recovery of those who truly need help to repair their homes and rebuild their lives after the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and María. It also generates further distrust in the federal government over the release of funds to Puerto Rico.
Charges include elderly financial abuse, “theft of government property, health care fraud, concealment, or failure to disclose work activity to SSA, and false statements or representations to the SSA. These defendants knowingly and willfully embezzled, stole, and converted to their own use the Social Security Disability Insurance Benefit payments to which the defendants knew that they were not entitled.”
And also selling unapproved drugs to vulnerable consumers promising to cure cancer or diabetes. A man was charged for fraudulently receiving government assistance related to alleged hurricane damage to property that did not belong to him.
The defendants are presumed to be innocent unless and until proven guilty. But these charges are reminders of past patterns of corruption in which citizens abused and jeopardized essential federal programs for thousands of people.
In this context of governmental and political instability, and amid recovery efforts, the island demands that every recipient and administrator of federal funds prove impeccable behavior.
Fraud raids like the one this week represent a blow to Puerto Rico's reputation before authorities in Washington. It brings back doubts over the ability of local authorities to manage federal funds.
It also damages the effort by the health community to receive equal Medicaid funding as in the states. There are commendable efforts, for example, to extend the Supplemental Security Income program, which assists people 65 years old and older who live below poverty levels or with disabilities and special conditions.
Social Security and Medicare are part of the lives of older adults, by providing them with health care and equipment.
According to the American Association of Retired Persons, six out of ten residents age 65 and older receive monthly Social Security payments, and nearly half depend on this benefit as their sole source of income. 12 percent of the participants are children, 22 percent have some form of disability, and 19 percent are spouses or widows/widowers.
As for Medicaid, those funds are used to finance part of the medical, hospitalization and drugs coverage under the local government’s health plan that serves 1.2 million people.
It would be very unfortunate if allegations of citizen misconduct were used to extend the already delayed release of disaster relief funds and justify further restrictions on health and nutrition programs.
Puerto Rico has to put a stop to the lack of ethical values that uses the vulnerability and tragedy of the people who are protected by these social programs.