Hurricane Maria left 1.5 million customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) without energy. (horizontal-x3)
Hurricane Maria left 1.5 million customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) without energy. (GFR Media)

Yesterday, the government welcomed  the agreement reached by the leadership of Congress regarding the disaster aid package that Puerto Rico would receive, describing it as a "big step" in the recovery of the island after Hurricane Maria.

"It is a recognition to Governor Ricardo Rosselló's request and to the tireless work of meetings and lobbying with Democratic and Republican leaders and the White House," said yesterday the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration  (PRFAA), Carlos Mercader.

To sum up, Puerto Rico would receive $ 4,8 billion to cover Medicaid expenses, $ 2 billion to restore the power grid and between $ 7 and $ 9 billion to rebuild homes. This emergency supplementary fund is expected to be voted and approved today, as part of a broader budgetary and allocations legislative package.

Mercader explained that the $ 4,8 billion "will help cover" full Medicaid expenses for two consecutive years.

"If we looked at the different requests that the governor had made, that was one of the most relevant," he told El Nuevo Día, referring to the fact that 600,000 beneficiaries on the island were at risk of losing their coverage in April due to the Medicaid fiscal cliff (Medicaid Cliff).

"We wanted Puerto Rico to receive the same treatment they had given to New Orleans after Katrina, in 2005," he added.

Energy and housing

Mercader said the governor included the request for energy and housing funds in letters sent to Congress and the White House in November and December.

"It was imperative that Puerto Rico received funds for these areas to advance in the reconstruction," he said.

Both the $ 2 billion to restore the power grid, and the $ 7  to $ 9 billion to rebuild housing, would be granted through the Community Development Block Grant - Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) program of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to Mercader, getting the funds from CDBG-DR was "critical", as it is estimated that more than 500,000 homes experienced severe damage or total destruction due to Hurricane Maria.

He also said that the allocation for the power grid would help to rebuild the system in a more "resilient" way, with the capacity to resist other atmospheric events.

Hurricane Maria left 1.5 million customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) without energy. Yesterday, almost five months after the passage of the hurricane, 28.45 percent of those customers were still without power, according to the website status.pr.

Mercader did not offer specific examples on how the funds received would be invested. He only stated that its use would be ruled by the initiative known as Build Back Better Puerto Rico.

Build Back Better Puerto Rico is the name Rossello gave to the assistance request  he made to thefederal government to finance the recovery and reconstruction of the island after Hurricane Maria. It was for $ 94 billion.

The reaction

After learning about the agreement and the funds for Medicaid, the Secretary of Health, Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, said that "Puerto Rico´s health is assured", for at least two years.

"Now we can concentrate on helping (to improve) public health and, perhaps, private  as well. Let's see if we can now attract doctors and health professionals to Puerto Rico", he noted, adding that "we will be able to restructure the health system ".

Rodríguez Mercado stressed that the $ 4.8 billion does not eliminate Medicaid Cliff, so he said they will continue lobbying in Washington DC to achieve parity of Medicaid and Medicare funds for Puerto Rico once the two-year relief is over.

The government had planned Medicaid Cliff for the beginning of April, which would have left the Health Reform without federal funds. That would have forced the government to pay 100 percent of the plan or take drastic measures, such as eliminating insured or benefits.

"For every dollar in the Reform , 45 cents came from Puerto Rico´s government. That money that we are going to save can be reinvested in health or other areas of need", he said.

El Nuevo Día asked PREPA for a statement, but its finance director, Nelson Morales, said that "the public corporation is not prepared to issue comments" because it is a "possible allocation" which is still under consideration in Congress.

This newspaper also requested the Secretary of Housing, Fernando Gil Enseñat, to comment, but was referred to Mercader.

Reporter Marga Parés Arroyo collaborated in this story.


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