Bush Poverty Proposals a Problem For Puerto Rico Medicaid Hike Goal... Navy Base Gearing Up To Secure Vieques Range Land After Training... Acevedo Trying to Continue Training Off Vieques Range... Calderon to Finally Give Up On Noise Suit Against Navy

February 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. .. Bush Poverty Proposals a Problem For Puerto Rico Medicaid Hike Goal

Buried in the fine print of the $2.23 trillion budget that President Bush has proposed for the federal fiscal year that begins October 1 are major changes in programs for the needy. The proposals will affect Puerto Rico even more than the States, as a majority of the territory’s population falls below the federal poverty level.

The changes would reduce federal requirements and offer States more authority over the programs as well as limit funding.

The broadest changes would take place in Medicaid, the program that subsidizes health care for the needy. One of the changes would fund the program in the States the way that it is now funded in Puerto Rico and other territories of the U.S.

The federal government currently pays 50%-83% of a State’s Medicaid costs. The dollar amount is unlimited. By contrast, the federal government pays only a fixed -- or "capped" -- amount for Medicaid in the territories. This amount is adjusted annually for inflation.

The proposal is likely to affect the efforts by officials of Puerto Rico and the other territories to fund Medicaid in the territories the way it is currently funded in the States. The Calderon Administration has joined the local governments of the other territories in making this a goal although Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party) as a candidate criticized then Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barcelo of Puerto Rico (statehood party/D) for seeking Medicaid "parity."

Puerto Rico’s current Medicaid cap provides only about 20% of the cost of the territory’s Medicaid program. Setting aside the issue of the cost involved, the Bush Administration will probably not want to shift territorial funding to the State model when it is trying to shift State funding to the territorial model.

Another proposed Medicaid change would allow States to combine funds from the additional program for health care services for needy children -- the Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) -- into Medicaid spending.

A third Medicaid change would eliminate most federal rules on Medicaid services for individuals covered under State (or territorial) law but not federal law.

A concern in the States about all of these proposals is that the changes would lead to limits on funding.

The Medicaid changes and proposed changes in Head Start, the preschool program for needy children, would be voluntary for States. Still, congressional Democrats have vowed to block the proposals.

The President’s budget includes an estimate of $201.4 million for Medicaid in Puerto Rico in fiscal year 2004, one eighth of one percent of the program total and an increase from $195.6 million this fiscal year. The budget includes $30.3 million for S-CHIP in Puerto Rico, .95% of the program total and the same amount as in fiscal year 2003. The Bush budget also includes an estimate of $244.3 million for Head Start in Puerto Rico next fiscal year, 3.58% of the program total and an increase from $239 million.

Another proposal would convert three-quarters of the program that subsidizes apartment rents for needy families, known as the "Section 8" program, into block grants.

A further housing proposal would end the Hope VI program which replaces dilapidated public housing units.

The President’s budget proposes a very different change for the School Lunch program: It would tighten the program’s rules to ensure that the subsidized meals go only to eligible needy recipients. The budget estimates $124.7 million for the School Lunch program in Puerto Rico, 1.87% of the program total and an increase from $119.2 million.

Navy Base Gearing Up To Secure Vieques Range Land After Training

Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico is making a significant purchase of law enforcement equipment. The equipment will reportedly be on hand to prevent people from breaking onto what is now the Navy’s training range on the island of Vieques as it is turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The range is to officially close May 1. The land -- 40 percent of the island -- is to become a "Wilderness Area" managed by Interior.

Federal officials are concerned that individuals will try to break onto the property, for reasons that include claiming home sites as squatters. In addition to problems of eviction that this would create, the officials are concerned that the trespassers might be harmed by unexploded ordnance.

Governor Calderon and other anti-range activists want the 12,000 acres turned over to local ownership. Nine thousand of the acres probably would have been under an agreement between the federal and Commonwealth governments won by Calderon’s predecessor, Pedro Rossello (statehood party/D), which Calderon rejected and broke.

The 2000 agreement provided for the federal government to dispose of the 9,000 acres with Puerto’s Rico’s territorial government having a priority claim and for the transfer of the remaining 3,000 acres to Interior.

In 2000, Congress, led by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), provided for all 12,000 acres to go to Interior. Inhofe did not want the final decision made on giving up the land before the agreement’s Vieques referendum on the range.

After Calderon refused to honor the agreement, several members of Congress decided in 2001 that Interior should continue to own all the land.

Acevedo Trying to Continue Training Off Vieques Range

Calderon’s official representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth" party/D), is trying to get the Navy to keep its Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF) open without the Vieques range, although it is the heart of the facility.

The Vieques range is the center of the practice area, but just a small part of it. The land and nearby waters comprise the facility’s "Inner Range." Vast expanses of ocean further away from the island make up the "Outer Range."

The Atlantic Fleet plans to begin dismantling the entire AFWTF beginning March 10, after the conclusion of Outer Range annual exercises with Latin American nations. The closure is in conjunction with the closure of the Inner Range on May 1. The overall closure would be completed by the end of this fiscal year, September 30.

Supporting the AFWTF is the major function of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Acevedo and employees at the base are concerned about the loss of jobs and the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the local economy. The plan to close the AFWTF includes shutting down Roosevelt Roads’ main port and reducing operations at its airfield.

The reductions will leave the base operating at a fraction of its current level. It may not, however, lead to the base being closed entirely through the base closure process that the Pentagon and Congress expect to work on in 2004-5. The base land could be maintained on a "caretaker" basis for contingency use in case a greater need develops in the future.

Calderon to Finally Give Up On Noise Suit Against Navy

Puerto Rico’s territorial government will drop its suit to prevent gunfire practice by U.S. Navy ships within 10.35 miles of the islands’ borders if the Navy gives up its Vieques island training range as planned on May 1. The news contradicted an earlier statement by Calderon’s Justice Secretary, Annabelle Rodriguez. It came from the Washington lawyer who had the idea for the suit, handled it, and has been Calderon’s main adviser on the Vieques range, Richard Copaken.

The suit was Governor Calderon’s primary strategy for forcing the Navy to give up the range immediately instead of by May 1 -- the date agreed to by predecessor Rossello. Its basis was a claim that noise from the five inch guns that have fired at the Vieques range from an average of eight miles away had thickened the heart walls of island residents -- a consequence Copaken called "vibroacoustic disease."

According to Calderon, the harm was caused by the ocean’s magnification of the sound’s pressure. Copaken alleged that it was a Vieques tradition to jump into the ocean when naval gunfire took place to enjoy the "Jacuzzi effect."

Calderon backed up her claim with medical test results that she gave then President Clinton. She said that the results showed 49 of 50 Vieques fishermen had thickened heart walls. A group of experts empanelled by the federal government at her request found, however, that the results actually showed none of the 50 had thick heart walls. A Johns Hopkins Medical School study also found no medical recognition anywhere of "vibroacoustic disease."

The findings were one of the main reasons that the federal District Court in the District of Columbia rejected Calderon’s complaint. Calderon appealed the decision but the U.S. Court of Appeals has delayed hearing her request.

Calderon’s announced plan for the suit was a key factor in her election as governor in 2000. It helped her win enough votes from independence supporters to eke out a victory over the statehood party candidate.

Copaken has also significantly benefited from the complaint, although it ultimately provided to be spectacularly unsuccessful. He and his associates have reportedly been paid more than $1 million for work related to the suit.

The suit was also the clearest example of Calderon breaking the Vieques range agreement. The agreement -- and a federal law implementing it -- required the Navy to give up the range this May 1. Calderon breaking the agreement led to the repeal of this requirement, however.

The Navy went ahead with plans to give up the range May 1, anyway. Maintenance of the range against Puerto Rican pressure tactics was considered to be not worth the effort.

Copaken has tried to suggest that the suit is responsible for the range’s closure, but federal officials never took the suit seriously. A senior Pentagon official said that the vibroacoustic claim was "garbage science."

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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