If OK’d, bill will transform Marianas healthcare, education
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Coming on top of over $2 billion in federal aid to the Marianas in the last three years, the Build Back Better Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, would continue to transform the lives of individuals and families in the islands for years to come, said Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP).
“H.R. 5376 increases base funding for Medicaid to $70 million, more than ever before, and permanently lowers the local match to a rate below any state,” Sablan said. “The House-passed Build Back Better Act extends the child tax credit that has already provided $28.7 million this year to Marianas families. And Build Back Better funds pre-kindergarten education here in the Marianas and child care for our working parents.”
Sablan’s College Access Act, which provides in-state tuition nationwide for Marianas students, his Employment Services and Job Parity Act, making Wagner-Peyser job training and placement funds available, and his Job Corps Nationwide Act, allowing for a Job Corps center in the Marianas are all part of the larger legislation.
The Build Back Better Act also has $1 billion for the Marianas, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to invest in critical infrastructure. “With over $100 million in capital improvement funds for the Marianas in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which the President signed on Monday, and our share of the $1 billion in this bill, we can reach longstanding goals like improving the [Commonwealth] Health Center on Saipan and building clinics on Tinian and Rota, modernizing and fortifying our power systems, and getting drinkable tap water to every home 24/7,” Sablan said.
All Republicans voted against the Build Back Better Act.
$70M for Medicaid, 17% local match
Congress raised Marianas Medicaid funding to $60 million two years ago in U.S. Public Law 116-94; and with the automatic inflation adjustment, funding for this year was set at $64 million. But Section 30731 of the Build Back Better Act raises that even more, to $70 million in fiscal 2022. And every year after, that amount should increase.
The Build Back Better Act also makes permanent the current 83% federal/17% local shares for Medicaid, a ratio better than for any state in the nation. And it allows the Marianas to reduce its local share another 6% by establishing a Home and Community Based Service program to bring care to older adults and people with disabilities. The extra funding for this new program in the Marianas would be in addition to the $70 million base.
Funding for CHIP, the Children’s’ Health Insurance Program, is made permanent in the BBBA. Together, Medicaid, CHIP and application of presumptive eligibility have doubled federal healthcare coverage in the Marianas to over 32,000 people in recent years. Presumptive eligibility allows Head Start providers, schools, and other community organizations to screen for eligibility and immediately enroll children who appear to meet the criteria to receive care.
With significant new federal funding from Congress, the Marianas has increased enrollment to 32,638, 63% of the population, according to data submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee by the Marianas Medicaid program for a hearing this March.
Seniors and others who are insured through Medicare would be eligible for hearing aids, a new program benefit. Over 2,000 individuals in the Marianas are enrolled in Medicare. For those who also participate in the Medicare Part D drug program, out-of-pocket costs are capped at $2,000. Over 300 individuals in the Marianas are enrolled in Medicare Part D.
Child tax credit extended
Families in the Marianas have already received $28,726,000 from the advanced child tax credit that was part of the American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March. And families will continue to receive those up-front payments through 2022, once the Build Back Better Act becomes law.
The child tax credit was raised from $2,000 to $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under age 6 in the American Rescue Plan. The credit is refundable, so even if it is more than what a family owes in taxes, they still receive the full amount. And refundability is made permanent in the Build Back Better Act.
When the American Rescue Plan increased the Child tax credit, Sablan made sure the costs would be covered by the U.S. Treasury, not by the Commonwealth government. He also included a $300,000 administrative grant to pay the Commonwealth for the extra work of making regular advance payments. Section 137102 of the Build Back Better Act continues this funding cover-over to the Commonwealth and the advance payment administrative grant.
Child care and universal preschool
Parents and children will also benefit from the $1 billion the Marianas will share with Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to provide high-quality, free, pre-kindergarten programs for young learners. Licensed child care providers, Head Start, or the CNMI Public School System could all participate in the mixed delivery model Section 23002 of the Build Back Better Act proposes.
From his first days in Congress, Sablan has always said that education is the key to success for the individual and for the Marianas community. Now, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, he has been able to further that goal with establishment of a pre-K program nationwide.
Section 23001 of the Build Back Better Act also provides $500 million for the Marianas and the three smaller territories to implement a new child care program for children from birth to age 5. The money would allow better pay for child care workers. And low and middle-income families would pay no more than 7% of their income for high quality care. Parents would also benefit from a new paid family leave policy, providing four weeks of paid leave in the case of birth or illness.
Lastly, the White House estimates, 10,800 Marianas students, who receive free lunches in school, will qualify for a supplemental summer feeding program of $65 per month.
In-state tuition for Marianas college students
Bachelor’s degree students from the Marianas would be eligible for up to $15,000 per year to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges nationwide under the terms of Sablan’s College Access Act, included as Section 20027 of the Build Back Better Act. In addition, Section 20021 increases the annual Pell grant for low-income students to $7,045 per year—a $550 increase. There are 1,032 students in the Marianas who rely on Pell, the White House estimates.
“Since first introducing the College Access Act in 2011, I have never forgotten the barriers to higher education that Marianas college students face. Even though Northern Marianas College has added bachelor’s degree programs in education and business, there remain so many fields of study that require going off-island,” Sablan said. “The costs of travel and living away from home are still there, but at least with passage of the College Access Act we can cut the cost of tuition and open the door to more educational opportunities for our students.”
$1B for critical infrastructure
Section 70901 of the Build Back Better Act appropriates $1 billion for critical infrastructure in the Marianas, America Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Oct. 28 version of the bill also included Puerto Rico, but Sablan worked successfully to limit the funding to just the four smaller insular areas in the version the House passed on Friday. “Because of its population Puerto Rico would have taken 90% of the $1 billion, leaving the others 10%,” Sablan said. “By taking Puerto Rico out of the distribution the Marianas will get something like 10 times more money.”
Sablan said he is concerned that the Commonwealth government will not use the money to build back better in the Marianas, but on sole source contracts and sweetheart deals. “I want to see the money spent to help everyone, not just the few,” Sablan said. “That means improving the Commonwealth Health Center and building clinics on Rota and Tinian. That means modernizing our power systems, so we catch up with Guam and Hawaii, which are way ahead of us on renewable energy and lowering the cost of electricity.
“We could bury power lines, strengthen the water system, and continue to help families fortify their homes again the more frequent and powerful typhoons that climate change is bringing.”
Protecting the Marianas from climate change
Section 70901 of the bill provides $30 million for technical assistance specifically for the insular areas to prepare and respond to the impacts of global climate change. And, although the islands are responsible for little of the greenhouse gases that are causing this problem, the Build Back Better Act provides a way for the Marianas to be part of the solution. Section 71002 requires the Department of the Interior to hold offshore wind lease sales in federal waters around the islands, which could reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lower the cost of electricity.
The Act provides a 30% tax credit for installation of residential solar and wind systems. It also makes up to $7,500 in tax credits available for purchase of a new electric vehicle, up to $4,000 for a used EV, and a 30% credit for electric bikes. The federal government pays for these tax credits, so they would cost the Commonwealth nothing.
The Build Back Better Act now goes to the U.S. Senate for action. (PR)