November 4, 2015 / 6:30 PM / 4 years ago

Cuomo, de Blasio to join Puerto Rico healthcare rally Thursday

SAN JUAN, Nov 4 (Reuters) - A planned rally in San Juan on Thursday to pressure U.S. lawmakers to improve healthcare funding for Puerto Rico will include appearances from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Healthcare represents some 20 percent of a Puerto Rican economy saddled with $72 billion in debt and a 45 percent poverty rate. Local doctors on Wednesday warned of a “(Hurricane) Katrina-like” crisis if the issue is goes unaddressed.

The rally is being organized by Puerto Rico’s religious leaders with participation from Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, along with labor unions, education leaders and the nonprofit Puerto Rico Healthcare Crisis Coalition (PRHCC).

The issue is especially resonant in New York, which is home to more than 1 million residents with a connection to Puerto Rico.

As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico pays the same Medicare taxes as states while receiving 40 percent less in reimbursement, and about 70 percent less in Medicaid, according to figures provided by PRHCC.

The low reimbursement rates are leading many local physicians to emigrate to the U.S. mainland, or to refuse to accept Medicare and Medicaid. These government plans cover some 68 percent - 2.4 million - of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million population.

The lack of reimbursement funds and an increasing paucity of doctors are leading to an influx of patients at medical centers, Dr. Antonio Puras-Baez, chair of the University of Puerto Rico’s urology department, said on Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

“My waiting period for cancer surgery is two-to-three months,” Puras-Baez said. “The patients are getting referred to medical centers because no one else wants to take care of them.”

The island also faces the impending dissipation in 2017 of a federal block grant, which could further squeeze Medicaid services.

Buried in debt and facing a potential default as early as December, Puerto Rico is hard-pressed to make up the difference.

The U.S. Treasury, warning of a budding humanitarian crisis on the island, has called on the U.S. Congress to improve healthcare funding for Puerto Rico, as have high-profile U.S. political leaders like Cuomo and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Dr. Jose Carlo-Izquierdo, a neurologist and former Chancellor of UPR’s medical sciences campus, told reporters on the call about a girl who, diagnosed with an operable tumor, lost her vision due in part to long wait times for surgery.

“We will have a Katrina-like situation,” Carlo-Izquierdo said, “maybe slower, but (ultimately) a tsunami.” (Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by Daniel Bases and Christian Plumb)

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