Improvement is Still Needed For The Territory’s Medical Facilities

Senator Gittens addresses the JFL North project. (Legislature photo)

Among the many operational challenges occurring at the medical facilities in the territory, it appears little progress has been made addressing the operations, infrastructure, and disaster recovery projects, as revealed during Friday’s senate hearing for the members of the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services.

Doug Koch has been serving as the chief executive officer for Juan F. Luis Hospital for the last two weeks. He addressed the waning retention of medical staff and the expansion of medical quarters and equipment.

“Recruitment and retention of healthcare personnel have been routinely, negatively impacted by the competitive short-term contract salaries offered on the mainland,” said Koch. “Coupled with the high cost of the Government Employees Retirement System, cost of living and the availability of affordable housing have all created a perfect storm of great recruiting challenge.”

Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger brought to the attention of the members of JFL her concern about sexual harassment complaints. However, both Koch and Acting Chief of Human Resources Director Terry Lynch said they had not received any complaints of sexual harassment.

“Sexual harassment is a very serious accusation,” said Lynch. “If any of your constituents have reached out to you with some concerns, please urge them to make sure that they forward any of those complaints to the HR department.”

Christopher E. Finch is the chairman of the Board of Directors for the Health and Hospitals Facilities Corporation. He mentioned that though retention is declining, there has been a low number of forced separations for the facilities in the territory. Regarding vaccination mandates, at the Schneider Regional Medical Center, 90% of employees are vaccinated, and 84% are at JFL.

“We have, from the very beginning, followed the federal rules of offering medical and religious exemption. Everyone with an exemption has a testing requirement,” he said. “If we had not established our own vaccine mandate in August, by late November, early December, with the CMS requirements, we would’ve had to do one then.”

Additionally, Finch addressed the status of the JFL North project on St. Croix. According to Finch, 3.5 acres of land was purchased, and there is currently negotiation to lease an additional five acres of land for the hospital expansion.

Senator Kenneth Gittens said, “As the chief sponsor on that bill, on behalf of my colleagues and I, I say congratulations, and let’s move forward.” He added, “I have no time to be kicking the can down the road. If we’re going to play Russian Roulette, I’m going to be the first one to encourage that if we have to move for an eminent domain, then we do that … we can’t continue to hold the people of St. Croix and the people of this territory hostage.”

Though setbacks have caused a delay in the project, it is anticipated by officials that the project will be completed this summer.

“We’re anticipating, barring any unforeseen circumstances at this point in time, that we will be ready by July,” said Darryl Smalls. “We are looking at the construction being completed, and we are looking at the commissioning that is required.”

Smalls is the Executive Director of Hospital Facilities and Capital Development.

The legislative body expressed frustration with not only the length of time the JFL project is taking to be completed but with anticipated problems that might occur after the structure is built.

According to Koch, approximately 900 employees will be needed at JFL North, and there are challenges with not only retention of current employees but with recruitment as well.

“We do have ongoing challenges,” said Lynch. “The challenges remain, trying to remain competitive with the salaries and compensation packets that are being offered for crisis assignments for COVID.”