Veterans living in Puerto Rico constitute a large, vulnerable and needy population that rightly claims to have the same services and care as their counterparts in the 50 U.S. states.
We join their demands to get the same treatment as other retired members of the Armed Forces. It will be the way to vindicate the rights of those Puerto Ricans who left their homes and families and risked their lives to defend democracy and freedom for their own country and for other nations.
The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington (PRFAA) recalled that the more than 200,000 Puerto Rican soldiers who have participated in U.S. wars were denied rights in the society for which they have fought. Those Puerto Ricans have marched under the U.S. flag to all battlefronts since World War I. However, they do not have the same access to assistance, scholarships and medical services as soldiers in the states, who have served in conflicts and military missions hand in hand with Puerto Rican soldiers.
It is up to Congress to correct this injustice.
Currently, there are 18 bills introduced by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González seeking to eliminate the limitations on health benefits, education, employment and opportunities for the island’s veterans.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are approximately 103,921 veterans in Puerto Rico. Some reports indicate that 80 percent of them have served on battlefronts.
In 2015, the U.S. Census projected that 60 percent of these veterans were 65 years or older. The survey found 39 percent with disabilities and 19 percent living below the poverty level.
The emerging profile is that of elderly people who suffer from conditions associated with aging, in addition to others related to their participation in military scenarios. In many cases, these are chronic conditions with serious effects on their quality of life.
For these veterans, returning to their families, when they have a family, poses adaptation challenges. Meanwhile, their opportunities for independent living are reduced by the lack of employment opportunities and other factors. This is a population that requires regular treatment and medication. However, the number of specialists and health professionals available to treat them is insufficient.
We have to return to these brave men for the sacrifices they have made. First, we need to offer them optimal health services adjusted to their needs.
The package of measures proposed by Resident Commissioner González and by a broad group of veterans’ organizations includes a bill that would allow veterans to participate in the Tricare plan. In this way, they would have access to comprehensive care services at low costs, without deductibles or co-payments. In Puerto Rico, considered an overseas territory, veterans have access to the TriCare Select Overseas program, with a higher enrollment fee, premiums, and co-payments than veterans living in the United States.
Another proposal seeks to offer employment alternatives for newly retired members so that they would have a source of income and the Department of Veterans Affairs as their workplace. A third piece proposes to facilitate a larger enrollment of veterans at the island's Medical Schools and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Tuition, books, technical equipment, and special fees are part of the benefits.
These proposals show how the package has the potential to expand treatment options for island veterans, as well as better options for education and workforce integration. The goal is to promote a better quality of life for a population that is precious to our people.
Congress has the power to rectify these inequalities that seem hard to eliminate in the United States. Its duty is to study and pass bills that will ensure a dignified life for all veterans, no matter where they live.