By Karen Pierog
(Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday called for heightened scrutiny of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program as the bankrupt territory seeks increased federal healthcare funding while it deals with repercussions from a government corruption scandal.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce agreed to several accountability measures linked to a $12 billion funding boost over four years for the low-income healthcare program in Puerto Rico. A group of Republican U.S. senators, meanwhile, sought information on whether any safeguards are in place to deter misuse of the island’s federal Medicaid dollars.
Last week, Angela Avila-Marrero, former executive director of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and other charges related to her role in an alleged scheme to steal federal Medicaid dollars through a corrupt bidding process with private contractors. The charges were part of a 32-count indictment brought by U.S. law enforcement officials against six people in a government corruption probe.
The House committee adopted an amendment proposed by U.S. Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, that added provisions for federal audits and probes of contracts related to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, as well as a quarterly reporting requirement on how much of the money was spent.
“The legislation we are moving forward with today ensures that Puerto Rico Medicaid beneficiaries get the care they need while improving transparency, accountability, and integrity of the program that will help prevent this type of fraudulent activity from happening again,” Walden said in a statement.
U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and other Republican senators requested detailed information on Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding levels and measures related to transparency and accountability from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“The recent and unfortunate allegations concerning misuse of public funds in Puerto Rico’s health system, along with an ongoing lack of transparency in the government of Puerto Rico, raises important questions as Congress once again faces decisions on federal Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico,” the senators said in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who has resisted calls for his resignation over government corruption and controversial leaked group text messages, said on Tuesday that
he welcomes greater federal oversight as long as it does not slow the flow of federal money to the island.
Protests against the governor have erupted daily in Puerto Rico, which filed a form of bankruptcy in 2017.
(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago; Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; Editing by Matthew Lewis)