The time will come, soon, where a self-determination process will be up for consideration in Congress, in coordination with Puerto Rican leaders, finally bringing an end to the century-old status debate after nearly 53 percent of voters in Puerto Rico chose statehood, though a sizeable portion (47 percent) vote “no.” Regardless, Congress should act immediately on solutions for the most pressing economic and social problems on the island.
An immediate concern for Republicans and Democrats is how to provide solutions to treat Puerto Rico fairly in federal programs. Historical disparities on programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income could lead Puerto Ricans to believe that there is no hope for fairness unless becoming a state, sometime in the future. If federal policymakers in the legislative and executive branches don’t think that is the case, then they ought to make better decisions about Puerto Rico — now.
There are three things for federal policymakers to consider in the short term:
One, legislate fairly and do not pass measures that exclude Puerto Rico and the territories, particularly when under-funding leads to persistent levels of poverty.
Two, increase local business and investment growth, through measures that allow local capital to grow alongside U.S. multinational companies investing in Puerto Rico fostering economic development.
Three, stop efforts to continue bad policy, such as continuing legal actions at the U.S. Supreme Court to deny SSI benefits to island residents.
Beyond short-term adjustments, Puerto Rico needs a new transformative vision. A joint effort forged by Washington and San Juan, Democrats and Republicans, with input from the private sector and civil society, can produce the fair and balanced approach needed to a poorly crafted patchwork of federal policy on Puerto Rico. Now is the time for a forward-looking plan for Puerto Rico.
The Biden administration can start by implementing its plan of recovery, renewal and respect for Puerto Rico. In the early decades of the 20th century, Puerto Rico sank into poverty, forcing people to migrate and seek solutions to their situation. Change came only when a joint economic and social vision and cooperation between Puerto Rican and Washington leaders developed policies to break the cycle of abject poverty.
Since then, new challenges have arisen — but not the solutions to face them. The Biden administration, members of Congress, along with Puerto Rico’s public, private and civil society have a new opportunity to bring new sustainable solutions.
Congressional leaders need to see Puerto Rico in a different light and seek to remedy bad policies that contributed to the economic collapse of the island and what amounted to unfunded mandates in social programs. For example, on health care, Puerto Rico has a 43.5 percent poverty rate but is unable to provide an equal level of health care to states. Puerto Rico has to comply with Medicaid standards but with inadequate statutory funding. Because of the lack of permanent Medicaid funding, Puerto Rico is only able to provide 10 of Medicaid’s 17 mandatory benefits and is unable to provide indispensable home health services to its senior population.
Puerto Rico is looking for the tools to rise up and work on the solutions to meet the challenges of today. Forward-looking steps that the Biden administration and Congress can take this year include:
- The incorporation of Puerto Rico into new upcoming manufacturing and infrastructure legislative initiatives that will lead to a sustainable economic growth for the island and the United States.
- The elimination of health funding disparities in Medicaid and Medicare programs.
- The fair inclusion of Puerto Rico in programs such as SSI.
- Reorganizing the White House Puerto Rico Task Force by promulgating a new executive order that expands its membership and its authority to implement revisions to outdated regulations that perpetuate disparate treatment of Puerto Rico residents in federal programs.
- The termination of the Fiscal Oversight Management Board and the restoration of self-government.
In the next few months, the Biden administration and Congress will be debating important policy ideas that will impact the country’s infrastructure, manufacturing of medical products and strength of the Affordable Care Act, among others. There can be a positive role for Puerto Rico to contribute and benefit from these initiatives. Now is the right time to develop and implement a forward-looking plan for Puerto Rico.
Max J. Trujillo is president of MJTPOLICY LLC, a strategic policy and government relations consulting firm.
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