Transition hearings day 3: Health secretary says $150 million needed to fight COVID-19 for the next
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
On the third day of the Puerto Rico government transition hearings, Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano testified Wednesday that the incoming government needs $150 million to fight the COVID-19 pandemic emergency for the next six months.
In the Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals at Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, González Feliciano said up to $25 million are required monthly to maintain the current initiatives that the agency is conducting to tackle the coronavirus.
“For COVID-19 tests and municipal contract tracing, $12 million; for the elderly project, $4 million; for the Bioportal [Dashboard system], $1.5 million a month; for airport screenings, including Arecibo, Aguadilla and marine ports, around $5 to $6 million; communications, $1 million,” the Health chief said while indicating that those expenses are not yet budgeted.
González Feliciano noted further that the aforementioned estimate might fluctuate as it doesn’t contemplate future inoculation efforts and immunization analyses.
“We have conducted our efforts to get this financed with funds from the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act; we are hopeful that we get an extension for the CARES Act funds,” he said, adding that if the extension is not possible, the Health Department will be in conversations with the Office of Management and Budget to request funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will cover 25 percent of the expenses.
The Health secretary also said that if the extension isn’t approved, “the funds will be appropriated for hospital programs to make up for many of their losses in their resources.”
“There are other issues that can be addressed in the next 30 to 45 days,” González Feliciano said. “We allocated the first $150 million from the CARES Act funds for hospitals in three weeks. In two months, we [the Health Department] received $250 million, where we gave $230 million more to hospitals, we stayed with $20 million to cover Remdesivir and other medications, $40 million for telemedicine, $41 million for public hospitals. … We have moved the money around.”
As for the CARES Act funds, González Feliciano said that according to reports from the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, around $300 to $400 million are still in reserve.
Health Dept. spends $3 million on mental health monitor who hasn’t released reports in 10 years
Meanwhile, governor-elect Pedro Pierluisi’s Incoming Transition Process Committee Chairman Ramón Luis Rivera Jr. noted that González Feliciano said the Health Department spends $3 million on a mental health and disabilities monitor -- and a law firm that he was unable to identify during a press conference -- that has worked for 10 years on court cases yet has not provided any reports during its tenure.
“In other words, the more the cases are extended, the more the monitors earn and the more the lawyers earn,” Rivera said. “Right now there is $1.5 [million] assigned for the monitor. I don’t know if it is the same case, $1.5 [million] for lawyers.”
As for the physical state of Río Piedras Medical Center in San Juan, the Bayamón mayor stressed that “these buildings are in quite critical condition.”
“The secretary’s office is sad …” Rivera said, mentioning “an office where they have broken walls.”
“There are areas where improvement can be made and it will then be up to the incoming government to start making the corresponding corrective action plans, including making more effective use of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is there and is not being used,” he said.
As for Dr. Ramón Fernández Marina Psychiatric Hospital, which is a state rehabilitation center, González Feliciano said that although he is aware that mental health is a concern on the island, he said challenges are ahead as healthcare plans do not cover patients who need more than 30 days of service and there’s not enough funds in the commonwealth budget to cover those expenses.
“We don’t have a plan to transfer these patients to a center of lesser cost. There are many patients who have some circumstances, no family, no housing, and as they are not mentally stable, we can’t transfer them to the [general] community,” the Health secretary said, adding that the government has to develop a project to “develop an intermediate-level, lower-cost rehab center.”
Nonetheless, when a member of the press questioned if there is a risk of an ineffective transition, González Feliciano replied that “we will not remove ourselves tomorrow and turn off the switch.”
“No. We are here, we are exactly the same government,” he said. “A different executive group is definitely going to come, but the direction for the country and the health of Puerto Rico is up to all of us. There should be no problem here.”
Health chief: PR will reach 1,000 COVID-19 deaths by Thanksgiving
As the Health Department on Wednesday reported 20 deaths due to the coronavirus -- the highest number of deaths the agency has reported for a day since the pandemic began -- González Feliciano said that by the end of November the island will have recorded more than 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
“Obviously, we are going to hit over 1,000 deaths before Thanksgiving,” he said. “That’s the sad news.”
The Health secretary said the rise in infections and related deaths is due to the general elections aftermath, regarding which he said both citizens and politicians demonstrated a “lack of discipline and responsibility.”
“The people in the elections did not pay attention, our leaders [took] liberties indiscriminately without social responsibility,” González Feliciano said while emphasizing that everyone must comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as using face masks and practicing physical distancing to prevent infection, during the upcoming holiday season.