By Bea Cabrera
CNMI expects better health care, better schools and roads from Biden's BBB bill
Saipan—In November last year, the U.S. Congress passed H.R. 5376 Build Back Better Act or BBB Act that is said to be President Joseph Biden’s agenda to ensure that the United States and its territories including the CNMI will have a well-built, secure and competitive economy on a global scale. It will cost the U.S. government $1.7 trillion in spending for existing and new programs.
The bill carries an array of issues such as investing in infrastructure that includes roads, bridges, electricity, and broadband, low-cost medicine that will bring down the price of prescription drugs, child care, subsidized affordable housing, climate change and utilization of green energy, and more.
To provide money for these causes, the Democrats plan to increase taxes on big corporations and wealthy Americans. Voting will take place in the Senate on the House-approved bill this month.
But what will the Bill Back Better Act do for the CNMI?
The bill’s biggest features such as expanding government health coverage, child care, tax credits, education, infrastructure and climate change speak volumes when it comes to what the islands need.
According to Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, the bill will transform the Marianas’ healthcare, education and infrastructure.
“Coming on top of over $2 billion in federal aid to the Marianas in the last three years, the Build Back Better Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, would continue to transform the lives of individuals and families in the islands for years to come.”
He cited an increase in base funding for Medicaid to $70 million that is more than ever before and permanently lowers the local match to a rate below any state.
“Congress raised Marianas Medicaid funding to $60 million two years ago in U.S. Public Law 116-94 and with the automatic inflation adjustment, funding for 2021 was set at $64 million. But Section 30731 of the Build Back Better Act raises that even more, to $70 million in fiscal 2022. And every year after, that amount should increase.”
“The Build Back Better Act also makes permanent the current 83 percent federal and 17 percent local shares for Medicaid, a ratio better than for any state in the nation that allows the Marianas to reduce its local share another 6 percent by establishing a Home and Community Based Service program to bring care to older adults and people with disabilities. The extra funding for this new program in the Marianas would be in addition to the $70 million base,” he added.
The act makes funds for the Children’s’ Health Insurance Program permanent. “Medicaid, CHIP and the application of presumptive eligibility have doubled federal healthcare coverage in the Marianas to over 32,000 people in recent years. Presumptive eligibility allows Head Start providers, schools, and other community organizations to screen for eligibility and immediately enroll children who appear to meet the criteria to receive care,” Sablan said.
“With significant new federal funding from Congress, the Marianas has increased enrollment to 32,638 or 63 percent of the population, according to data submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee by the Marianas Medicaid program,” Sablan added. “Over 2,000 individuals in the Marianas are enrolled in Medicare…seniors and others who are insured through Medicare would be eligible for hearing aids, a new program benefit.”
The BBB Act has allotted $400 billion for child care, $500 million of which will be divided between the Marianas and the three smaller territories to implement a new child care program for children from birth to age five.
Sablan believes that the money will result in better pay for child care workers and low and middle-income families who would pay no more than 7 percent for high-quality care.
Parents would also benefit from a new family leave policy, providing four weeks of paid leave in the case of birth or illness.
In conjunction with Rep. Sablan’s College Access Act, under Section 20027 of the BBB Act, bachelor’s degree students from the Marianas would be eligible for up to $15,000 per year to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges nationwide.
The BBB Act allots $1 billion for much-needed infrastructure that will be divided between the Marianas and other territories including America Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I want to see the money spent to help everyone, not just a few (and) that means improving the Commonwealth Health Center and building clinics on Rota and Tinian. That means modernizing our power systems, so we catch up with Guam and Hawai’i, which are way ahead of us on renewable energy and lowering the cost of electricity,” he said.
“We could bury power lines, strengthen the water system, and continue to help families fortify their homes against the more frequent and powerful typhoons that climate change is bringing,” he added
For many years, Commonwealth Utilities Corp. has been contemplating an underground power system that is seen to benefit key areas in the CNMI especially in the wake of typhoons and super typhoons that make this a legitimate need.
As for the care and protection of the environment, the bill provides $30 million for technical assistance to be utilized in insular areas for these islands to be able to prepare and respond properly to the harmful effects of climate change.
The bill requires the Department of Interior to hold offshore wind lease sales in the jurisdiction of federal waters around the islands, which could reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lower the cost of electricity.
The BBB Act also provides tax credits of 30 percent for the installation of residential solar and wind systems. A total tax credit of $7,500 is also available for the purchase of a new electric vehicle and $4,000 for a used electronic vehicle. Electric bikes also get a tax credit of 30 percent from the federal government.
Before the Christmas break, the BBB Act was threatened by not having enough votes and being killed in the Senate. Many Republicans in the Senate are saying “no” because of the possible 31 percent inflation hike that will result in approximately $367 billion being added to the U.S. deficit.
In response, the White House released a statement saying they “will not relent to help Americans with their child care, health care, prescription drugs and eldercare. The fight is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year.”