Senate Panel Holds Governor’s Proposed Emergency Medical Services Merger Bill

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. conducts Monday’s Health, Hospitals, and Human Services Committee hearing. (Legislature photo)

The Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services decided Monday to put a hold on a measure requested by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. that would have integrated the U.S. Virgin Islands emergency services, taking medical services out of the Department of Health and into the V.I. Fire Service.

The legislation is part of a nationwide trend towards shared services where states have similarly placed their emergency medical services under their state’s respective fire division. This type of integration allows emergency medical services to make a more rapid response, Virgin Islands Fire Service Director Daryl George said.

“By deploying EMS providers and equipment from 10 additional strategic locations throughout the territory rather than the present one to two locations per island, we can ensure faster response to emergency calls,” George said. “This may ultimately save lives.”

Though senators appeared to be in support of the measure, they still chose to hold it.

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. said there were “concerns in the bill” and “recommendations” that needed to be addressed first, but the committee intends to “immediately turn this measure around. Most of us are in support of the measure, but we want to make sure the legislation is fine-tuned so it can be a seamless transition once the merger occurs.”

Sen. Kurt Vialet said the legislation “speaks more to the merger and less to the regulatory side,” and requested additional details from representatives who were not invited to the hearing by the committee.

Most of the “details” committee members wanted before making a motion to advance the bill “puzzled” Marise James, a policy advisor employed with the Office of the Governor for Justice and Public Safety, which includes the V.I. Fire Service. James championed quickly advancing the bill because, she said, in 2011 legislation was first written with the same intent and nothing came of it.

“Here we are 10 years later in 2021, and we have to have proper medical services … When you ask about the details, the details can’t be done until the legislation is actually in place. Legislators don’t do the execution. The Executive Branch does the execution, and we can come in front of you over and over and over again with details, but we don’t even know until it happens … Every time I hear the Legislature ask for details, details, details I am wondering, is that the problem with some legislation,” James said. “Until you pass this legislation, we who are in the Executive Branch cannot act and you know that … If we want to make change for the V.I., let’s do it now.”

Her “emotional” remarks may not have swayed the committee’s decision, but it did prompt a response from the committee’s chairperson.

“Believe it or not, we also have emotions. We have to live this every single day. I have had to call 911. The issue is, when you talk about the lack of details, is that we don’t want to be irresponsible in our action either by moving legislation, and then everything fall apart,” Francis said. “There are too many questions that need to be asked and answered.”

The legislation will now stay in the committee until the call of the chair.

Sens. Marvin Blyden, Kenneth Gittens, Alma Francis-Heyliger, Vialet, and Francis were present for the hearing. Sens. Samuel Carrion and Janelle Sarauw were absent.