Puerto Ricans struggle to buy food amid funding shortfall

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are feeling the sting of what the government says are insufficient federal funds to help the U.S. territory recover from Hurricane Maria amid a 12-year recession

"Elderly people here are not living with dignity," Vargas said, noting that her mother has had to stop taking one of the two insulin products she needs to control her diabetes because there is no money to pay for it. She's also on a minimum payment plan with the island's utilities so they don't cut her electricity and water, and can only afford an emergency phone that connects to 911 and does not accept incoming calls.

The additional food stamp funds allowed Puerto Rico's government to help an additional 279,000 people previously not covered by a program that serves 1.3 million people on the island of 3.2 million, as well as increase the benefits of those already enrolled. Gov. Ricardo Rossello has asked Congress to approve another $600 million for the program, but it is unclear whether that will happen. The House approved a bill authorizing that amount and it is now before the Senate, which could approve it as early as next week, although Democrats also want money for Medicaid and more generous terms for receiving disaster aid.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York demanded more help for Puerto Rico as he criticized Trump on Thursday.

"Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover," Schumer said. "What the president is doing is unacceptable, and un-American. I urge my Republican colleagues to ... help us pass a disaster package that addresses the needs, not of some, but of all disaster survivors."

Many in the U.S. territory are closely watching what happens in Washington as they fret about how to cover costs in upcoming months with less money.

Francisca Matias, a 61-year-old cardiac patient whose daughter is diabetic, said they both depend on food stamps and were extremely relieved when the additional funding increased their benefits for a time.

"When that money arrived, it came with the glory of God," she recalled, adding that her benefits doubled from $200 to more than $400.

She said she was able to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, something she hasn't been able to afford since the benefits were reduced.

The request for additional food stamp funding comes as Rossello's administration is also seeking a higher Medicare Advantage reimbursement rate for island residents, noting it is more than 40 percent below the U.S. national average. Overall, more than 580,000 people in Puerto Rico rely on the program and more than 40 percent of them live below the poverty line, Rossello said.

Among them is Carmen Santos, a 68-year-old retired public school cafeteria worker who has lupus and also was hit with a reduction in food stamp benefits.


Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.