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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘We have to get ready for a smaller population’


An older population means insurance companies need to start preparing themselves to handle the needs of more people of advanced age, panelists at Wednesday’s “Insurance, Health and Life” forum emphasized. (Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

Health insurance industry examines the island’s current demographic state


By Richard Gutiérrez

richardsanjuanstar@gmail.com


Puerto Rico’s demographic profile has always been something of an up-and-down situation. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many residents left the island to move to the mainland, an exodus that led to second, third and fourth generations of Puerto Ricans who were born in the mainland U.S.


Puerto Rico’s population reached its peak in 2004 at 3.8 million inhabitants, and since then has seen a drop to 3.2 million. The dropoff obviously has had an impact on the overall economy, and the health insurance industry is no exception. That is why on Wednesday the Insurance Company Association held a forum called “Insurance, Health and Life,” where several panelists and professionals joined to discuss the current state of Puerto Rico’s population in demographic terms and the rapid changes the island has seen over the past few years with the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from the common knowledge that many Puerto Ricans are looking for financial stability outside of the island, demographer Raúl Rodríguez, one of the panelists, believes the situation is a lot more complicated than that.


“It’s a combination of many things,” he told the STAR. “It’s a combination of people leaving and people having fewer children overall.”


Rodríguez’s presentation demonstrated various indicators of Puerto Rico’s deficit in population growth, factors including Puerto Rico’s aging population, with more and more islanders over the age of 65.


“As young people leave the island in order to find a better life, the population becomes older overall,” Rodríguez told the STAR.


An older population means insurance companies need to start preparing themselves to handle the needs of more people of advanced age. Rodríguez believes that “as long as insurance companies are prepared to deal with the effects of population loss, they can avoid problems in the future.”


Rodríguez also showed during his presentation that birth rates are increasingly low all over Puerto Rico, while death rates are higher than birth rates even in municipalities in the island’s center where younger people tend to reside.


“As the population gets older, that increases death rates, which inevitably makes the population go lower,” the demographer said. “Mortality, natality and migration will determine the size and structure of the population, because in the most recent decades, more people have left the island than have stayed. As more people leave, the population shrinks because fewer people stay to have children and increase birth rates. Overall birth rates are decreasing in North America as it is, and migration is just another push into a lower population.”


“Why do people leave?” Rodríguez asked. “Well, there are many things that may push someone to leave, economic stability being the one most people talk about. But then it is not the only reason people leave -- things like incidents of crime or lack of proper healthcare, these things make people want to leave the island; these can all be considered a push into leaving the island.”


“I don’t think the people who left the island will come back to the island, especially younger generations who already know English and can move to the states with relative ease,” Rodríguez added. “The only way we can change this is if people come to the island, but frankly I don’t see that happening. We have to get ready for a smaller population. We cannot expect a rise in birth rates either, because the number of women on the island is dropping, especially younger women who are at a reproductive age. In the last 20 years we’ve had a lot fewer young people on the island as well.


Despite his less than optimistic view of the population situation, Rodríguez did offer some insightful comments on how to address the current situation.


“We need to work hard for people to stay in the country and not leave it,” he said. “Instead of trying to make people come back to the island, we need to get people to stay on the island.”


Meanwhile the panelists also talked about life expectancy among the island population, which is surprisingly higher than in the mainland United States. The average man in the mainland U.S. is expected to live until age 78, while in Puerto Rico male life expectancy is 80 years old.


One of the reasons for this might include diet and smoking. Puerto Rico has one of the lowest smoking rates in the United States and its territories.


“I think … Puerto Rico’s life expectancy will continue to increase; however, it’ll be at a slower pace because of a combination of things,” said Michael L. Frank, managing director and actuary at Risk Strategies Consulting. “I believe because diseases like COVID educated us really quickly on whether it’s a once in 100 years event like the Spanish flu, or if it was manufactured and we could be dealing with more of these in the future.”


Of course, a longer life doesn’t necessarily mean a better life, and in terms of quality of life, Frank says it’s a mixed bag.


“I think some have taken exercise to the fullest, but being on island is an advantage to Puerto Ricans when there is a pandemic because unlike a winter environment, because of the tropical climate, you can go out more, you can exercise more and your quality of life during a pandemic would be better,” he said. “I truly believe Puerto Rico would thrive.”

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