The Senate Finance Committee heard budget requests from Frederiksted Health Care, Inc. and the V.I. Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
Frederiksted Health Care
FHC is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization that provides primary health care on St. Croix, mainly for low-income individuals and families.
FHC Chief Executive Officer Masserae Sprauve-Webster, accompanied by Chief Financial Officer Jacquelynn Rhymer-George, requested an allotment from the Government of the Virgin Islands of $2.5 million instead of the governor’s recommended $2.15 million. Fiscal year 2021 will include $2.8 million in federal funding and $7.5 million from programs.
“Over the past several years, our services have continued to increase to meet the needs of our community while our allotment per visit has decreased from $92 per visit in 2014 to $52 per visit in 2019. Based on our projections for the upcoming year and the governor’s proposal, the allotment will fall even further to just $27 per visit, an almost 50 percent drop from 2014,” Sprauve-Webster said, adding that the national average cost of a medical visit is $250.
In addition to caring for 14,000 patients, setting up a new clinic in Sunshine Mall, deploying a health/dental van and dealing with COVID-19, the organization wants to begin researching how to cope with the health issues that lower the life expectancy of Virgin Islanders.
Setting up procedures for coronavirus treatment and testing has been especially difficult for FHC. They have only tested staff and their families. Currently, the health care facility has great difficulty ordering gowns, masks and gloves and receives only small orders at a time after searching through a list of vendors, Sprauve-Webster said.
Rhymer-George said the facility pays its invoices on time and bills are processed by FHC staff. There have been no raises for personnel since 2018, the CEO said.
Senators commended FHC on their work, but several encouraged the organization to provide more behavioral health care on the island. FHC has been trying to hire a psychiatrist and currently has access to only one for one week a month. It is difficult to hire physicians due to the low salaries offered in the territory, Sprauve-Webster said.
“All of us are on the same page looking at the services you provide – we want to give it [allocation] to you,” Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said.
Several senators asked about the possibility of housing an ambulance at the FHC facility in Frederiksted. Sprauve-Webster said she has advocated for an ambulance for Frederiksted to be housed at the fire station since it is a 24/7 facility. The area at FHC, mentioned by senators, is a nurses’ station. Drivers would not have access to the building at night, and there are no physicians to perform surgeries.
Sen. Oakland Benta suggested FHC look into the Alderville Home for the Elderly next door for an ambulance bay and room for other health services. Sprauve-Webster said they do not have the funds to completely renovate the damaged building.
Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs
Commissioner Richard Evangelista and his team from V.I. Licensing and Consumer Affairs did not have as congenial a hearing as FHC. Senators complained about people doing business out of their residences without a license, the lack of enforcement officers and had pointed questions about processing fines and other payments.
“Are you reorganizing? You’ve had an enforcing issue, forever, for 20 years,” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said.
Licensing and Consumer Affairs’ total budget for FY 2021 is $3,948,876, a decrease of $532,226 from 2020. The General Fund allotment of $2.9 million covers personnel and fringe benefits. The rest is operating expenses according to Evangelista’s written testimony.
DLCA comprises eight divisions: Commissioner’s office, administration and business management, licensing, boards and commissions, consumer affairs, enforcement, legal and the office of cannabis regulation. There are 40 employees in the department and two vacancies.
Due to closing the office in March because of the novel coronavirus, staff work from home and the revenue-generating divisions have collected a little more than half of what was budgeted for the year.
The licensing division collected $3.7 million in 2019 and $2.3 million so far in 2020. The consumer division conducted 292 inspections of retail establishments in 2019 and just 112 in 2020, bringing in $80,150 in fines. The consumer affairs division resolved 164 complaints in 2019 and collected $49,845 in restitution, whereas in 2020 they resolved 75 complaints and collected $33,987.
“I’ve seen an uptick in everything from ’19 to ’20. That is good,” DeGraff said.
Several senators asked why telecheck payments weren’t accepted by the department. Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. said it is a violation of the governor’s orders.
There are a dozen boards that have licensing responsibilities but can only perform when they have a quorum of members. Of the 12 boards under DLCA, eight are non-functioning because they lack a sufficient number of members. The boards of counselors, fiber optic licensing, mechanical licensing, plumbing licensing, electricians licensing, public accountancy, general construction contractors and architects, engineers and land surveyors all lack enough members to perform their functions.
Evangelista said he has submitted a list of about 20 names to the governor to fill some of the vacancies on the licensing boards so they can operate and collect fees. Sen. Janelle Sarauw said she will bring up funding for board members at a mark-up session. Chair Kurt Vialet said spending $200,000 to bring people in to collect $1 million is worth it.
“We have the names. We’re ready to go,” Evangelista said.
Present for the hearing on St. Croix were: Sens. Benta, Marvin Blyden, Francis, DeGraff, Frett-Gregory, Sarauw and Vialet.