January 19, 2018

Warren, Massachusetts Delegation Question SAMHSA on Mental Health Challenges in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

Lawmakers Request Information on Agency's Efforts to Address Mental Health Challenges on Islands Following Hurricanes Irma, Maria

Text of the letter available here (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation today sent a letter to Elinor McCance-Katz, the Assistant Secretary at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to request information on SAMHSA's efforts to address mental health challenges in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The letter comes after Senator Warren led a congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico last week to conduct oversight of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

SAMHSA, which leads the nation's efforts to "reduce the impact of...mental illness on America's communities," manages and administers a number of disaster-related mental health services, including the Disaster Distress Hotline, the Disaster Technical Assistance Center, and a set of "Crisis Counseling Assistance" grants. The agency also notes that "overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses before, during, and after" hurricanes and tropical storms.

In their letter to SAMHSA, the lawmakers noted the extensive damage caused by the hurricanes to the islands' infrastructure and cited reports that residents of both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have experienced increases in mental health issues following the hurricanes. "Hurricanes and tropical storms can trigger emotional distress in individuals who experience them," the lawmakers wrote. "Hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico and the USVI have experienced and continue to experience this emotional toll."

The lawmakers also expressed concern about the accessibility of SAMHSA's mental health services to the islands' residents. "SAMHSA operates a national network of crisis centers through its Suicide Prevention Lifeline, yet Puerto Rico does not have a Lifeline-affiliated call center," wrote the lawmakers. "Like Puerto Rico, the USVI has no Lifeline-affiliated mental health crisis call center, and does not appear to have received grants from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center."

The lawmakers asked a series of questions related to SAMHSA's role in hurricane recovery efforts on the islands and requested that their staff be briefed on the subject.

Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Senator Warren has:

  • Led a congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico to conduct oversight of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.
  • Led eight of her colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in writing to HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to request that the Committee hold hearings to assess the challenges facing the health and educational systems of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Called for an investigation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) decision to award over $30 million in contracts to Bronze Star LLC for temporary roofing materials in Puerto Rico that were never delivered. (The DHS IG has said it will investigate.)
  • Introduced a comprehensive plan, along with Senator Sanders and colleagues, to address the immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and ensure that the islands not only recover, but are able to rebuild in a way that empowers them to thrive.
  • Led five of her Senate colleagues in writing to the Department of Defense to request information on the Department's efforts to provide medical care in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria, and to request information on the role of the USNS Comfort in the Department's Puerto Rico response efforts. 
  • Joined colleagues in urging Senate appropriators to include in a third disaster supplemental bill additional funding to help schools impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Urged Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight and Management Board to request that the Court overseeing Puerto Rico's debt restructuring completely write off the Island's debt obligations.
  • Led a group of 12 senators asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information about water- and vector-borne diseases in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Written to the Trump Administration outlining what ought to be included in a third disaster supplemental appropriations bill to address the damage caused by hurricanes and wildfires across the country.
  • Joined colleagues in demanding federal agencies expedite power restoration efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Joined in leading a group of 7 senators in pushing the Trump administration to increase efforts on Vieques and Culebra, especially securing the Vieques Superfund site.
  • Urged the Department of Education to use its discretion to help college students and student loan borrowers displaced or otherwise unable to continue their education in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  
  • Led a group of senators urging DHS to take steps to ensure the accuracy of the official fatality count in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Called for Puerto Rico's debt relief during a Capitol Hill rally in coordination with the #JustRecovery march.
  • Participated in a FEMA briefing on the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Led a coalition of senators in a letter to President Trump, urging him to step up disaster recovery efforts on the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra.
  • Held community meetings in Massachusetts to discuss the economic and humanitarian crises on the islands.
  • Pressed President Trump to take eight immediate, specific actions in response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Urged HHS to provide additional resources and better coordinate efforts to combat the growing public health crisis on the ground.
  • Called on the President to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to more swiftly respond to the disaster.
  • Written to Republican leadership requesting that Congress be allowed to promptly take up legislation to provide the necessary aid to the U.S. citizens living on the islands.  
  • Asked President Trump to waive the local cost-sharing requirement for the hurricane response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and for the federal government to fully cover recovery expenses.
  • Joined Senator Markey in calling for a resolution to the Univision-Verizon retransmission dispute, to hasten the restoration of Spanish-language news programming in the wake of the hurricanes.