Democrats Question Why FEMA Hasn’t Fixed Puerto Rican Hospital

(Bloomberg) -- Congressional Democrats want to know why the only hospital on a remote Puerto Rican island remains closed a year and a half after Hurricane Maria ripped through the area, with little apparent progress toward its rebuilding.

Democrats from the Senate and House sent a letter Wednesday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency demanding answers as to why the facility on the island of Vieques remains shuttered. The commonwealth has been seeking federal funding to rebuild the hospital that serves about 9,000 residents on the island 8 miles (13 kilometers) east of the Puerto Rican mainland.

Efforts to restore or replace the hospital have been bogged down in federal bureaucracy. It’s become a key example of the shortcomings in the broader rebuilding effort, and it has drawn widespread media coverage. FEMA has set up a temporary facility to provide care that residents have said is inadequate, with some forced to travel by air or ferry for healthcare services.

"It is unconscionable that over 19 months after Hurricane Maria, U.S. citizens still cannot access comprehensive medical care -- and FEMA must take rapid and robust action to provide the hospital with the resources it needs to rebuild," the lawmakers wrote, according to a copy of the letter sent to FEMA Acting Administrator Peter Gaynor.

The letter was signed by 10 Democrats, including presidential candidates Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It gives FEMA until June 5 to respond.

Puerto Rico aid has become a major point of conflict as lawmakers negotiate additional disaster funds, with President Donald Trump repeatedly portraying the island as ungrateful for the money it has received, which he misleadingly says amounts to $91 billion. In fact, that’s a long-run estimate of what Puerto Rico could see if it’s treated like mainland U.S. jurisdictions. That’s far from guaranteed, given recent history and the island’s lack of a vote in Congress.

About $42.3 billion has been allocated to the island, but it’s only received about $12.6 billion, according to a federal government tally. The island’s federally appointed fiscal oversight board recently cut its near-term economic growth and budget surplus projections for the commonwealth, based on the assumption that federal aid is likely to arrive more slowly than originally expected.

Puerto Rico also is bogged down in a bankruptcy that it landed in after years of free spending and corruption. Critics say that its recovery process demanded extra bureaucracy to guarantee the funds were well spent.

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