Bipartisan members of he U.S. House of Representatives led by Natural Resources chair Raúl M. Grijalva are urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urging him to prioritize U.S. territories in the distribution of Covid-19 assistance funds, noting the vulnerable economic and public health infrastructure in these areas.
"Since receiving notice that several private sector providers are relying on HHS criterion when allocating test kits, protective equipment, and other lifesaving supplies to jurisdictions in desperate need, it is important to know if HHS is taking territories’ fragile economic and public health infrastructure into consideration when determining the criteria," the House members said in a letter to Azar.
The latest wave of Covid-19 relief package worth $3 trillion sets aside $20 billion for Guam, CNMI, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and District of Columbia. Each territory stands to receive more than $2 billion each under the proposed Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, which the U.S. House Democrats passed over the weekend and is now awaiting action by the U.S. Senate.
The 1,815-page proposal would add a fifth installment to a the previously released generous assistance from the federal government. The funding formula gives individual territories a relief package that is double or triple their local budget.
The lawmakers asked the Trump administration to take into account the unique “challenges and vulnerabilities” that the U.S. territories face, especially Puerto Rico, which has faced “an economic crisis, a series of recent natural disasters, and unequal access and treatment under federal programs.”
They noted that U.S. territories have less developed public health infrastructure than most comparable mainland communities, and several have aging population and higher rates of hypertension, coronary heart disease, asthma, and incidences of other infectious diseases such as dengue, compared to U.S. averages.
The House members are asking the health department to provide the committee the following information:
1. Lists of declared Covid-19 hot spots or other priority designations since HHS began generating these for use by private sector providers.
2. Detailed criteria used to declare a hot spot or priority jurisdiction.
3. Measures being taken to increase test kit and protective materials, reagents, and supplies distribution to territories.
4. Whether territories’ vulnerable population and frail economic and healthcare context is being taken into consideration in the HHS priority criteria.
The letter was signed by Committee Vice Chair Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-CNMI) and Reps. Michael F.Q. San Nicolas (D-Guam), Stacey E. Plaskett (D- USVI), Jenniffer Gonzaělez-Coloěn (R-P.R.), Aumua Amata C. Radewagen (R-American Samoa), Nydia M. Velaězquez (D-N.Y.), Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Joseě E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Jesuěs G. “Chuy” Garciěa (D-Ill.) and Juan Vargas (D-Calif.).
Grijalva, Sablan and San Nicolas hosted a Virtual Roundtable on Federal Coronavirus Response in U.S. territories in April, where they heard from witnesses about the lack of response from the Trump administration to combat coronavirus in Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.