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Puerto Rico Government Looking At Different Ways To Reduce $120 Billion Debt


Puerto Rico continues to struggle financially. The U.S. commonwealth owes creditors and pension funds more than $120 billion. And last week, the island officially began the process of seeking a special form of protection from creditors called Title 3 which is similar to declaring bankruptcy.

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a federal government spending bill that included $295 million in Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico's struggling health care system. To talk more about how Puerto Rico's leaders are getting their fiscal house in order, we spoke with Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares earlier this week.

And, Governor Rossello is a Democrat who took office in January. And I began by asking him about an announcement on Friday to close some 180 public schools affecting about 27,000 students.

RICARDO ROSSELLO NEVARES: I made no secret when I ran for office that we needed to reduce the size of government. We needed to be more effective. And, frankly, just talking about the schools that are closing, that was part of our proposal a couple of months back. It has nothing to do really with Title 3, and some of the strategies that will ensue we've already stated that they're going to happen.

You know, we need to reduce our expenditures in health care, although we don't want to reduce the access to it. We really need to reduce the expenditures in education and what we're doing is we're tackling the bureaucracy as opposed to education itself. And we want to invest on education. So those are decisions that we have to deal with it and - with strong leadership and a great team. I'm sure we're going to push past both for Puerto Rico.

SINGH: Now, governor, let's put this in context. We have a little over 46 percent of those living in Puerto Rico already struggling financially. They live below the poverty line. Critical sectors across the board have been hit hard. What are Puerto Ricans on the island likely to encounter on a basic level in the coming years as a result of this economic relief Puerto Rico's seeking?

ROSSELLO: Yes. So let me answer. I mean, that is the status quo, right? I've just recently arrived to be a governor, but we're changing that. Let me give you the example of tourism. Tourism took a big blow last year because of sort of overstated Zika problem in Puerto Rico. We've externalized the promotion of Puerto Rico from government so that we can have a - sort of group packages so that people can come to Puerto Rico and that it's more enticing. So we're being very aggressive on the tourist front.

On the health care front, we've identified, you know, some of the problems - long waits, people are not able to choose their providers, some of the insurers don't pay the doctors and the doctors leave. So what we've proposed is a new model whereby we're going to give more access to people, the long waits are not going to be happening, people will be able to choose both their providers and their health care coverage and this will enable us to actually reduce the cost of health care in Puerto Rico anywhere from 350 million to $500 million.

SINGH: Your administration recruited Avenue Strategies - right? - to help sort of attract new investment, new dollars, new business. And Avenue Strategies, for those who haven't heard of it, was co-founded by Corey Lewandowski who was on the Trump campaign.

And at the same time as this is happening, you still had President Trump tweeting recently Democrats want to prop up, you know, Puerto Rico, and they want to do that - bailout Puerto Rico with taxpayer dollars. I mean, I'm paraphrasing here. That's not a direct quote. Did the strategy of getting Avenue Strategies on board not work?

ROSSELLO: Judgment is still out. We will evaluate all of our people based on results. But certainly that, as you stated, that wasn't the most flattering of tweets. And I responded stating a few things. Number one - it was Trump's government in different levels has stipulated the need for Puerto Rico to have that funding for the Medicaid. It is not a bailout. It is actually just a path forward with the amount that we previously had which was significantly lower than any other state.

But that without it, it puts Puerto Rico in a significant bind. Now, mind you, this is all happening while we're reducing about $300 billion locally on health care. So it is sort of an added burden. The second component, I would say, is that health care and civil rights are not political issues. They should be essential rights for American citizens, and Puerto Ricans every side of the island are American citizens.

Lastly, the repercussions of allowing a health care system in Puerto Rico to collapse because it doesn't have its fair share of funding is that a lot of the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will move to the states now. You know this has been happening for a while, and let me tell you a little bit about the impact on health care alone. For every dollar that (unintelligible) spend on Puerto Rico for health care, that same citizen - the federal government and the state government will have to spend $4. So we feel that this needs to be stressed more to the administration stating that it is not a bailout, and it is just our fair share of money for health care.

SINGH: Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello. Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSSELLO: Thank you. Thank you. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.