Acevedo: Loses House GOP Support For More Equal Hospital Aid; Fails To Win Senate Committee Democratic Support For Welfare Increase; Is Contradicted On National Flag Display

July 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Acevedo Loses House GOP Support for More Equal Hospital Aid

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would close 50% of the gap between federal payments for hospital services for the elderly in Puerto Rico and the payments everywhere else under the U.S. flag. The bill would eventually increase Medicare payments for in-patient treatment to Puerto Rico hospitals $25 million a year or so. But the increase would take effect far later than when House leaders had agreed it could less than two years ago in spite of the efforts of Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila (‘commonwealth’ party/D).

In addition, the overall bill’s fate is uncertain. Its main purpose is to provide prescription drug benefits under Medicare. This is a goal of both national political parties -- especially in this election year -- but the parties are deeply divided on what benefits to provide and are focused on which party would obtain the most benefit from enactment of a bill this year.

The House action on the Puerto Rico Medicare provision is important even if the bill does not become law, however, because it would probably indicate what the House would do on a provision in a bill that does become law.

The increase payment would be phased-in, and the phase in would not begin until October 1, 2003. The phase-in would close 10% of the gap each year for five years. The original proposal by then President Clinton in 2000, by contrast, would have eliminated the difference immediately.

The Clinton proposal responded to lobbying by then Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barcelo (statehood party/D), the Puerto Rico Hospital Association, and the health care reform initiated by then Governor Pedro Rossello (statehood party/D). With the help of Romero, the Hospital Association, Rossello, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Democrat Charles Rangel (NY), and others, it won the support of almost all key leaders in Congress. In addition to Democrats, this included House Republican leaders and Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA).

But the increase was blocked by then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS).

Lott’s reasons for blocking it are still unclear. Then ‘commonwealth’ party gubernatorial candidate Sila Calderon’s main Washington representative, Charlie Black, is close to Lott and has influenced the senator on Puerto Rico matters. In addition, Lott, like Calderon and Black, is a strong opponent of statehood for Puerto Rico. At the time, he was stung that Clinton had just won congressional acceptance of legislation supporting the people of the territory choosing the islands’ future political status from among options that included statehood. There was a report that Lott was opposed to increasing benefits for Puerto Rico as long as the territorial government tried to prevent U.S. military training at the U.S. Navy’s range on the island of Vieques, but at the time the federal and Commonwealth governments were in agreement on the training.

Medicare has rates for different hospital services that it uses in paying for treatment of the elderly everywhere other than Puerto Rico. It uses a combination of these rates and local cost factors in paying for treatment in Puerto Rico. 50% of the Puerto Rico payments are based on the rates that apply elsewhere and 50% are based on the local cost factors.

Encouraged by the Puerto Rico Hospital Association and Romero, the Clinton Administration won enactment of the 50/50 formula from a reluctant Republican Congress in 1997. For years, the formula had been 25% of Medicare’s usual rates and 75% of the Puerto Rico costs.

Acevedo and the Calderon Administration have been lobbying for the more equal treatment, but lost the support of House Republican leaders for immediate application.

Acevedo Fails to Win Senate Committee Democratic Support for Welfare Increase

Acevedo and Governor Calderon’s lobbyists also failed to win support from key Senate Democrats for a significant increase in temporary assistance for needy families in Puerto Rico in comparison with the increase that the Clinton Administration obtained from Congress working with Romero and others. The failure is particularly important because Acevedo failed to win support from the Republicans who control the House for any increase.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to extend the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is the program that replaced the old "welfare" program in the Welfare Reform that was a singular achievement of Clinton’s legacy. The Finance Committee bill would increase TANF funding for the five U.S. territories from $116.5 million to $119.5 million. Of the current $116.5 million, Puerto Rico receives $107.25 million.

The tiny increase compares with a 25% increase in funding in the Welfare Reform bill worked on by Clinton and Romero. It also compares with a $68 million a year increase sought by Acevedo working with the Calderon Administration.

The bill would, however, provide Puerto Rico with $10 million for mandatory child care funding.

Federal funding for territories for temporary assistance for needy families is limited in contrast to the funding provided States, which is based on need. An official estimate prepared that the time that the Welfare Reform was enacted calculated that Puerto Rico received half the funding that it would as a State under the program at the time.

Hansen Contradicts Acevedo on National Flag Display Concern

The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ lead committee on territories matters contradicted Resident Commissioner Acevedo on whether there is any concern in official Washington about the Calderon Administration’s prosecution of statehood party leaders for placing the national flag in the office of a top Calderon aide who had earlier removed it.

Representative James Hansen (R-UT) wrote Calderon of his "deep concern . . . as proud American citizens simply wishing to display our common flag have been met with violence and the full force of state security." He noted that the office of Women’s Advocate Maria Fernos -- who had removed the national flag from her office but left the territorial flag -- is "supported by federal tax dollars."

Hansen wrote the letter after Acevedo told reporters that statehood party efforts had failed to attract attention to the removal and to the Calderon Administration’s efforts to convict president Carlos Pesquera and other statehood party leaders of criminal charges for the scuffle that ensued when Fernos had her staff try to prevent the U.S. flag from being brought into the office.

Senate Threatens Puerto Rico Rum Industry

The Senate approved major competition for Puerto Rico’s rum industry, one of the islands’ biggest industries and a major contributor to its tax coffers. Senators passed a bill that would open the U.S. market to rum from Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

The bill would eliminate trade barriers to products from the Andean nations. The measure is a step towards hemispheric free trade, a goal of leaders of both national parties.

Interestingly, the bill also includes a provision announced by Resident Commissioner Acevedo that would protect an endangered industry in Puerto Rico — tuna canning. An amendment by Senator John Breaux (D-LA) would limit reduced trade barriers to tuna from the countries to 20% of the American production of canned tuna.

Breaux, who has often been helpful to Puerto Rico governments of both of the largest political parties in the islands, is close to one of Governor Calderon’s top lobbyists, Democratic fundraiser Thomas Boggs.

The Breaux amendment would help protect the 500 worker Bumble Bee tuna canning plant in Mayaguez from low-wage competition in an industry where wage costs are a major factor. A similar-sized Star Kist tuna plan recently closed in Mayaguez and was replaced by a new plant in Ecuador.

The two plants had canned about 30% of the tuna canned in the U.S. was replaced by a new plant in Ecuador. The rest of the tuna canned in U.S. areas is canned in the territory of American Samoa and California.

Calderon Loses Army’s Southern Command; Acevedo Does Not Tell Puerto Rico

Army officials have told Congress’ Appropriations Committees that the Army’s Southern Command -- which just moved to Puerto Rico two years ago — will move from Fort Buchanan in San Juan to Fort Sam Houston in Texas, as the current commander wants. In reaction, the House of Representatives twice passed amendments to block the move.

The House actions were not taken because the House wants the command — hundreds of personnel and tens of millions of dollars in spending each year — to remain in Puerto Rico. Instead, the House was responding to unified delegations from Georgia and Alabama that want the command relocated to their area of the country.

The amendments to the two bills that will fund the Department of Defense and other national security functions were sponsored by Representative Mac Collins, a Georgia Republican, who wants the command relocated to Fort Benning in Georgia.

The amendments are expected to be dropped in House-Senate conferences on the ‘must-pass’ bills, but they indicate that the only question about where the command will be located is: Where in the States will it go.

Although Resident Commissioner Acevedo discussed one of the bills with Puerto Rico reporters, he did not tell the reporters of the amendment. Puerto Rico correspondents for Puerto Rico newspapers in Washington speculated whether he was trying to hide the action or just did not know what the House — in which he serves — had done on an important Puerto Rico issue.

Acevedo and Governor Calderon had made an effort to keep the command in Puerto Rico, but they only acted after Army officials had decided it should move. Their action also was taken only after statehood party president Carlos Pesquera came to Washington to lobby to keep the command in Puerto Rico.

In addition, Calderon and Acevedo policies are a major reason why the command is moving. One critical factor is the anti-U.S. military atmosphere they have created in Puerto Rico by their efforts to prevent training at the Navy range on the island of Vieques, which include unsubstantiated claims of adverse impacts on the residents of the island.

Another factor is that they have not really tried to keep the command in Puerto Rico. While Army officials wanted to locate the command in Puerto Rico after it left panama under the Panama Canal Zone treaty, Defense Department budget officials resisted the idea. It was only lobbying by former Governor Rossello and the efforts of the Clinton White House, working with Army officials that resulted in a Defense Department decision to move the command to Puerto Rico. Rossello’s lobbying included measures by his administration and other public officials from the statehood party to accommodate command needs.

Acevedo and Gutierrez Oppose Amendment to End Vieques Training

Representative Bob Filner (D-CA) decided not to offer and amendment to the main Defense appropriations bill to prevent Navy military training on the Navy’s Vieques range after May 1, 2003 after being advised not to by Resident Commissioner Acevedo and Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) — who have both been working to prevent the training.

Filner was going to offer the amendment at the request of an environmental group, but Gutierrez and Acevedo urged him not to do so to prevent an adverse reaction from the majority of the House and because President Bush has said he will try to have the training ended May 1, 2003.

Acevedo, Governor Calderon, and Gutierrez, who is their closest ally in Congress, last year lobbied the White House to end the training before May 1, 2003, and said that any further training was unacceptable. As a result of their lobbying, the Congress repealed the law that previously required that the training end May 1, 2003. Calderon then meekly accepted a private pledge from Bush that he would try to end the training May 1, 2003, and Acevedo and Gutierrez did as well.

The "Washington Update" appears bi-weekly.

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