Plaskett, Gonzalez-Colon aim to lift Medicaid funding cap for U.S. territories

Lawmakers across the Caribbean are urging Congress to make health care laws more equal for Americans living in the territories. That push came Wednesday afternoon led by Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) and Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-Puerto Rico).

Among the biggest changes, the proposal would eliminate the cap on Medicaid funding for territories by allowing the funding process to be similar to the rules for all 50 states and Washington D.C. The bill would aim to provide better and more affordable access on the islands, so residents aren’t forced to seek treatment on the mainland. You can read more about the legislation here.

Right now, the U.S. government pays for 45 percent of the V.I.’s Medicaid funding, significantly less than some states, which can be more than 80 percent. Other non-states are also notably higher than the V.I., such as Washington, D.C., which receives 70 percent of its Medicaid funding from the federal government, Plaskett and Gonzalez-Colon noted.

Lawmakers can’t pinpoint just how many Virgin Islanders and Puerto Rican residents seek treatment outside of the territories. But they explained that the instances are rising and have been since Hurricanes Maria and Irma ravaged the Caribbean in 2017. Often times, residents will visit hospitals in Florida or other coastal states, meaning it costs them more money to leave the island and less money – both public and private – is being spent on the islands that desperately needs it.

The law would also expand Medicare coverage and allow more access to residents of the United States’ five territories across the board. Gonzalez-Colon noted that the number of Puerto Ricans covered by Medicare is down in recent years, from 1.5 million to 1.2 million due to both funding and because more residents seeking treatment in the U.S. rather than the island.

Both Plaskett and Gonzalez-Colon, who are non-voting members and at-large members of the U.S. House, argue that the artificial cap in place now is also driving doctors away from the territories. That’s because they will receive more money and funding on the mainland, they said.

“An extension of the matching fund waiver will be necessary along with access to additional Medicaid funding,” Plaskett said.

“In the case of Puerto Rico, we get 55 percent (of federal funding for Medicaid), Gonzalez-Colon said. “That means that the territory has to put up the other 45 percent in order to have access to this program.”

The bill would benefit all territories, and already has backing from voting members of the House.