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Without Senate Action, Puerto Rico, Other Territories Lack Critical Health, Food Aid

The Senate still hasn’t approved emergency disaster relief legislation, keeping more than a million Americans who live in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories without much-needed health and food aid. While negotiations to finalize the Senate’s disaster bill reportedly are making progress, the Senate must act quickly to restore needed food and health assistance to the territories.

Senate inaction stands in stark contrast to the House. Four months ago, the House passed an emergency disaster bill to provide crucial relief for Puerto Rico, numerous states, and other U.S. territories affected by natural disasters over the past two years. And just this past week, the House passed an updated version to add assistance for areas that were affected by more recent natural disasters.

Some 1.35 million low-income residents of Puerto Rico — who comprise more than a third of the Commonwealth’s population and who include more than 300,000 children — had their food assistance benefits cut dramatically in March as disaster food aid ran out.

Both the House and Senate versions of the emergency disaster bill would grant Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s request for an additional $600 million in disaster food aid. The House bill would also extend additional aid provisions that are key to Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María. And, it would provide critical Medicaid funds to the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, all of which experienced widespread destruction from natural disasters last year.

Puerto Rico

The governor argues that Puerto Rico needs the additional aid not only due to its ongoing struggle to recover from Hurricanes Irma and María, but also due to larger structural problems with the financing of the Commonwealth’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP).

Unlike SNAP (food stamps), a federal entitlement in which everyone eligible for benefits under its formula can receive them at the full benefit level and which has special provisions to provide food aid after a disaster, NAP is a block grant. At current funding levels, its capped annual funding is inadequate to meet the basic food needs of poor citizens living in Puerto Rico under normal circumstances, and the program cannot expand automatically in response to rising need after a disaster. That’s especially troubling for Puerto Rico, where even before the 2017 hurricanes more than 1 million people had income below the poverty line, including 56 percent of the Commonwealth’s children.

Over the long run, the nation’s leaders should restructure NAP so that it operates like SNAP. Right now, however, Puerto Rico needs the additional emergency funding to prevent more of its people from going without enough to eat.

The Pacific Island Territories

The territories receive an inadequate Medicaid block grant, though additional federal funds through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have enabled them to avoid cutting Medicaid in recent years. But the Northern Marianas has exhausted its ACA funds this year, and Guam and American Samoa can’t provide the matching funds needed to draw down theirs. They need these essential funds to avert cutting Medicaid in the coming months.

After months of waiting for critical aid, millions of Americans in Puerto Rico and the Pacific Island territories can’t afford further delay. The Senate should join the House in advancing a disaster relief bill that meets both the nutrition and health needs of Americans living in the U.S. territories.