Puerto Rico commission focused on Social Security

William Villafañe, Senator of Puerto Rico, hosts Martin O’Malley, Commissioner of SSA by zoom, Ray Eagan, SSA Regional Commissioner; Michael Gelber, GSA Regional Commissioner; Rep. Jimmy Gomez; and Rep. Darren Soto at a roundtable featuring Puerto Ricans telling their stories of being directly impacted by inequalities in the Social Security system.

(Photo: Courtesy of Alex Lawson/Social Security Works)

Puerto Rico Has a Social Security Problem That Must Be Fixed

This is how the Biden administration responded when we showed them how Social Security treats Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. There’s no reason Social Security, or any government program, should treat them any differently than other Americans. Yet they are disadvantaged in several ways.

The only Social Security Administration (SSA) office in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, was closed over a year ago due to an issue with the lease. There’s still no replacement office, forcing both Social Security beneficiaries and SSA employees to travel long distances to other offices in more remote areas. It is unacceptable that residents of the island’s largest city have no easily accessible Social Security office.

Sadly, the office closure is only a symptom of systemic discrimination against Puerto Ricans. They are ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security’s companion program for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Unlike Americans on the mainland, they are not automatically enrolled in Medicare Part B. Medicare reimbursement rates are lower, which is forcing doctors off the island. And the size of the SSA workforce in Puerto Rico is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of beneficiaries.

Last week, I traveled to Puerto Rico at the Invitation of State Senator William E. Villafañe Ramos for a roundtable discussion and community meetings to ask the Biden administration to address these issues. Among the heartbreaking stories we heard was that of a widow who was forced to move from Puerto Rico back to Florida, away from her family and all sources of support, so that she could collect SSI. After her husband died she was forced to choose between being able to pay her bills or spending her final years with her family. This isn’t a choice. When there is no money, there is no choice.

The roundtable and meetings were organized by Sen. Villafañe Ramos, member at-large of the Puerto Rico Senate. Participants included SSA Commissioner Martin O’Malley, Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA), Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe, and both regional directors from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and General Services Administration (GSA).

The good news is that the Biden administration’s overwhelming willingness to have its highest ranking officials take part in the discussion and travel to the island to listen shows commitment. And the Biden administration is taking steps to end this injustice and treat Puerto Ricans equally. At the roundtable, Commissioner O’Malley said that SSA would open a new office in San Juan as soon as possible. He made it clear that Puerto Ricans are a priority.

That’s very different from Donald Trump’s approach to Puerto Rico, best exemplified by the dark days after Hurricane Maria. Trump infamously tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd and gave his administration an “A+” for hurricane response – even though thousands of Puerto Ricans died and over 100,000 were displaced.

On our trip we met with the Governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi; the Secretaries of Education and Public Safety; the Mayor of San Juan, Miguel Romero; the Mayors of San Lorenzo and Las Marías; workers from a municipal recycling plant and a food bank; police offices from multiple jurisdictions; and we even attended the retirement party of a colonel with the Puerto Rican police force. Although I sometimes spoke, my main job was to listen. Listen so that I could take their words back to DC, to the Biden administration.

Social Security advocates and public safety officials in Puerto RicoAlexis Torres, Secretary of Public Safety of Puerto Rico; Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works; and Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works at the police station in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico talking about Social Security inequalities affecting police officers in Puerto Rico.(Photo: Courtesy of Alex Lawson/Social Security Works)

Their message was unified and clear, the people of Puerto Rico are asking for nothing more and nothing less than fairness and equal treatment under the law.

And President Biden is listening and taking action to make that a reality. Myself and everyone at Social Security Works won’t rest until it is. In fact, we won’t rest until every single person in this country is treated fairly and equally under the law no matter where they might happen to live.

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