The Storm Has Passed, But Puerto Rico’s Health Faces Prolonged Recovery

Carmen Heredia Rodriguez and Rachel Bluth | Kaiser Health News | October 16, 2017

As President Donald Trump signals impatience to wind down emergency aid to Puerto Rico, the challenges wrought by Hurricane Maria to the health of Puerto Ricans and the island’s fragile health system are in many ways just beginning. Three weeks after that direct hit, nearly four dozen deaths are associated with the storm. But the true toll on Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents is likely to involve sickness and loss of life that will only become apparent in the coming months and in indirect ways.

As victims continue to be found and stranded people reached, it will take time to assess the consequences of their missed care or undertreatment. The situation in Puerto Rico’s health system is far more vulnerable than those in Texas or Florida, which also weathered hurricanes this fall — medically, economically and politically. A month after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, only about half of the final official fatalities had been tallied.

Puerto Rico has a higher rate of diabetes than any state, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of the island’s population depends on Medicaid. And, unlike in the States, Puerto Rico’s Medicaid system receives a fixed amount to meet residents’ needs, a pot of money that could run dry next month, said Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress...