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Capital Tonight: Cuomo Admin Sends More Help to Puerto Rico

By Liz Benjamin, 10/9/15

During his whirlwind trip to Puerto Rico in September, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged to keep trying to help the cash-strapped island as it struggles to address a massive debt crisis.

Among the issues discussed by members of the governor’s delegation and Puerto Rican government officials was the cost of health care – specifically Medicaid – which have been exacerbated by the Affordable Care Act and are contributing to the financial troubles.

Now Cuomo is making good on his promise by sending a second delegation to Puerto Rico next week, according to one of the impending trip’s scheduled attendees.

Though the governor won’t be personally leading this one, (at least he hasn’t announced as much so far), state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and state Medicaid Director Jason Helgerson, both of whom were on the September trip, are on tap to return.

Also on this trip will be a new addition: Assembly Health Committee Chairman Dick Gottfried, one of the chamber’s most senior Democratic members and an expert on arcane health-related matters.

Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Puerto Rico native and chair of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, who was a member of the governor’s initial delegation, will also again accompany the administration team.

According to Gottfried, who is departing New York Monday morning and expects to return Wednesday, the focus of this trip is solely health care and Medicaid reform.

“The Health Department people, I gather, are going to be advising Puerto Rican Medicaid officials how New York has been restructuring our Medicaid program and moving it almost entirely to managed care,” the Manhattan assemblyman said.

Gottfried acknowledged that the island’s main problem is its Medicaid reimbursement rate, which is considerably less than what’s standard on the mainland. That’s a federal issue. But, the assemblyman said, if Puerto Rican officials can restructure their program, they might be able to get a federal waiver and also make their health care system more sustainable in the long term.

“If people in Washington and elsewhere see that Puerto Rico is making an effort on a variety of fronts, it might help free up other forms of relief,” Gottfried said.

Some – including Cuomo – have called for Puerto Rico to be allowed to declare bankruptcy, which it isn’t currently allowed to do given its unique status as a US territory, and would require an act of Congress. So far, D.C. lawmakers have not shown a willingness to move on this issue.

Gottfried said neither the administration nor the Legislature is picking up the cost of this trip for he and Crespo, who are being asked to cover their own expenses using campaign funds.