SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio joined thousands of demonstrators Thursday demanding equal treatment for Puerto Rico on federal health care.
The demonstrators were protesting Medicaid reimbursements in the U.S. territory that officials say are 70 percent lower than on the U.S. mainland and Medicare reimbursements that are 40 percent lower.
The appearance by New York's top political figures, which also included New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, came two months after they announced a partnership with the island seeking to help it regain its financial footing amid a $72 billion public debt burden.
De Blasio, who said he was participating on behalf of the 700,000 Puerto Ricans in New York City as well as the entire island, called on Congress to ensure the island gets a "fair share of Medicaid dollars."
"It is not just a health care crisis, and a humanitarian crisis in the making, it's worse than that," de Blasio said. "The fact that our federal government does not treat Puerto Rico fairly on Medicaid ... is deepening the financial crisis" on the island.
Nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico's population relies on Medicare or Medicaid, and officials warn that potential cuts in current payments starting next year could add up to $3 billion through 2017.
If the cuts are implemented, the island's health care system will start to collapse, said Ricardo Rivera, executive director of Puerto Rico's Health Insurance Administration.
"The government is not in a position to contribute any more money," he told The Associated Press.
Protesters echoed those concerns as they wondered what would happen to their benefits and coverage. Some said many friends in their 70s are still working to make ends meet amid Puerto Rico's nearly decade-long economic slump.
Salvador Robles, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he worried that elderly people on the island would see a reduction in their coverage and not be able to afford medication.
"I worked for 40 years, and I deserve to have Medicare and not have my benefits cut," he said. "We're American citizens."
He hoisted a poster declaring "We work for it! Medicare/Medicaid" as he joined the surging crowd that surrounded Cuomo and other officials.
"The fight is just beginning," Cuomo said. "The federal administration is being unfair to Puerto Rico."
Earlier on Thursday, Cuomo said he was organizing a meeting to develop a national campaign to draw more attention to Puerto Rico's issues. He also opened the New York State Office of Trade and Tourism in Puerto Rico, which aims to promote tourism between both places and boost economic ties.