Getting the territory included in the Affordable Care Act is not something expected to happen with the makeup of the current Congress nor is the implementation of other federally-funded health-related social services something territory residents should expect to see any time soon.
Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett gave the frank assessment while answering questions at a Town Hall meeting she hosted Wednesday night at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Albert A. Sheen Campus on St. Croix. The gathering was Plaskett’s first effort to keep the community abreast of the work she has been doing in Washington over the last three months and an opportunity for her to hear attendees’ “concerns and opportunities” as it relates to the territory.
“People all the time come to me and say how can we be included in the Affordable Care Act; we need to be included in the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “In this Congress, that is going to be a very difficult sell because the Majority has made the determination that they don’t want the Affordable Care Act, and so there is a constant push to make sure that the entire mechanism stays in place.”
The congresswoman pointed to the number of times — 56, as of Feb. 4 — the House GOP has voted on bills to have the law repealed or undermined.
“So, the notion of adding another group in it is one that probably would not get much traction from either side of the aisle at this point,” she said.
However, for people interested in seeing some sort of public health care be made available to territory residents on a large scale, Plaskett said there are other options she is looking in to.
“There are ways that we are trying to work around that to see how we could get additional funding and additional support because even if we increase Medicare, the expansion would ensure that individuals who have not been covered in the past are able to be included,” the congresswoman said, adding, “but we know there’s still going to be a gap of individuals who don’t meet that requirement, but who also don’t have private insurance that are going to take care of them. And that’s where we’ve got to figure out creative ways to ensure those individuals are taken care of.”
As the free-flowing, question-and-answer format continued, another audience member asked the congresswoman what she could do to ensure eligible territory residents start receiving Supplemental Security Income, a federally funded income supplement program designed to help “aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income; and it provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter,” according to a description on the U.S. Social Security Administration website.
Again, Rep. Plaskett said there was not much she could do given the steely resistance to anything related to health care in Republican-controlled Congress.
“That’s another really difficult one right now,” she said. “This is a very hard Congress to expand any social services programs that has not been in place previously, and particularly when those social services program are tied to health, which, in the Majority’s mind, means affordable healthcare.”
However, she says these problems are not unique to the Virgin Islands, as her counterparts in the other island territories — American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, she pointed out — are experiencing the same difficulties in Congress. As a result, Plaskett said both she and her chief of staff have been meeting regularly with officials from the other island territories to discuss matters of importance to them and find ways they could work together.
With that, Plaskett turned the conversation to healthcare initiatives she is working on in Washington that would benefit the territory’s veterans.
“Right now, I am the sponsor, on the House side of legislation that was created on the Senate side by Senator Portman, to fix the portion of the Sanders-McCain Bill, which deals with Veterans Affairs,” she said.
Rep. Plaskett explained that with the 2014 scandal that erupted over negligence at the VA hospital in Phoenix, which revealed the deaths of many U.S. veterans while awaiting basic medical care, “there was legislation that was created out of it that expanded the type of services that veterans could receive and which mandated that veterans health services be reformed,” she said.
The congresswoman said reform included 18 hospitals being built across the country, one of which will be placed in Puerto Rico, bringing the number of hospitals to two on the island.
However, she highlighted language in the bill that would allow ailing vets to quickly meet their medical needs.
“There was a piece of the bill that said if you lived 40 miles or more from the nearest hospital that you would be able to use private facilities to be able to take care of those veterans services that you would have had at the hospital,” Plaskett said, adding, “This is also a way, if used properly, that we could have revenue generation coming to our own local hospital because these would be veterans that would be using the facilities here, rather than having to go to Puerto Rico.”
However, as it stands now, the congresswoman said, “It’s based on reimbursement, so we’re trying to fix the legislation so that it doesn’t be the primary payer for veterans rather than them being reimbursed. And, we think that that will probably go through, so that would mean that our veterans here would be able to use the services.”
Plaskett said she has also been working with members of the 31st Legislature for them to consider adopting local legislation that would “incentivize private doctors to also pick up veterans services in their own private practices.”