The 33rd Legislature approved a host of bills Tuesday when it convened in session, including the Medicaid windfall bill, which directs some $39.5 million to pay the hospitals’ Water and Power Authority bill, and a measure that would ban the sale of sunscreens containing coral-killing chemicals.
All present members of the Legislature, with the exception of Sens. Alicia Barnes (D-STX) and Dwayne Degraff (D-STT), who were absent, voted in favor of both measures.
The $39.5 million from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, was the product of an audit that revealed Medicare has been underpaying the territory’s medical facilities for the years 2011 through 2013. When local leaders learned of the available funds, ideas – and eventually, legislation – on how to allocate the money flew.
The initial Senate bill, Bill No. 33-0072, proposed that a majority of the amount should go to the territory’s hospitals so they can pay their outstanding WAPA bills, but did not provide funding for such entities as St. Thomas East End Medical or Frederiksted Health Care, which provided some of the services that Medicaid was paying back. Some lawmakers balked at the omission. Meanwhile, Gov. Albert Bryan said this was not the time or proper vehicle for salary increases, which were included in the original bill.
The bill passed on Tuesday appropriates $11.7 to Juan F Luis Hospital and $10.5 million to the Schneider Regional Medical Center, both of which will use the money to pay outstanding obligations to WAPA. Another $700,000 is slated to go to the V.I. Waste Management Authority to pay its WAPA obligations.
The rest of the total amount is distributed among various agencies, including the Department of Health, Department of Human Services and the two hospitals for repairs, ADA-compliance improvements and negotiated salary increases.
The St. Thomas East End Medical Center and the Frederiksted Health Care will get $1.8 million and $2.5 million respectively.
One person closely watching the bill’s progress was WAPA Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Kupfer, who told lawmakers in early June that payments to WAPA that might arise from the bill are critical to paying its vendors and keeping the authority functioning. Vitol Corporation, for instance, which was contracted by WAPA to power its propane-converted facilities, lists a $100-million collectible from the authority, and during the June 6 hearing Kupfer told lawmakers that could result in “rolling blackouts or brownouts” in the territory if unpaid within weeks or months.
“Today’s passage of Bill 33-0101 provides a total of $22.9 million to the territorial hospitals, and the V.I. Waste Management Authority to pay down past due electrical bills owed WAPA. WAPA intends to use the funding to make critical vendor payments,” Kupfer stated in a news release Tuesday evening.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory (D-STT), who said Monday that Vitol seemed to have inside information on the bill’s progress through Senate, reiterated some of her concerns during session.
“I am concerned about the long-term impact as it relates to utilizing one-time resources to pay salary increases, when increases are in fact recurring expenses,” she said.
Sen. Stedmann Hodge (D-STT) also raised what he called the history of resource mismanagement at the territory’s hospitals, one of which laid him off after the 2017 storms.
The sunscreen ban rode a wave of victories through various hearings with a wide range of support from the community. If enacted before January 2021, the bill would make the U.S. Virgin Islands the first state or territory in the United States to have legislation against the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate.
“We have lost 80 percent of our coral reef cover. Eighty percent, and we’re fighting against big issues that are beyond our control,” said bill sponsor Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT). “Go on any given day to Coki Point and Magens Bay, packed with tourists wearing sunscreen. Do you know the damage we’re doing to the ocean?”
The sunscreen ban bill passed with some amendments. Sarauw moved to include a third chemical, octocrylene, in the list of banned chemicals that are also by-products of octocrylene. The addition of octocrylene to the ban list should strengthen the legislation, she said.
Another amendment moves up a deadline for sellers and distributors of sunscreens containing the toxic chemical. The original bill states that once the bill is enacted, store owners or distributors can no longer purchase new inventory, and would have to dispose of their stock through Waste Management Authority by January 2021. Sarauw’s amendment would move that date forward to March 30, 2020.
Lawmakers also approved a bill narrowing the definition of “veteran” in a law that relates to the sale of taxi medallions. In May, Bryan signed a bill prohibiting veterans who receive taxi medallions from selling them to non-veterans. Tuesday’s bill clarified what “veteran” means, adding language that limited the definition to people who entered active U.S. military service while domiciled in the Virgin Islands, those U.S. military veterans who have resided in the territory for at least 10 years before taking part in taxi medallion auctions.
“We have a number of veterans that are not from the territory that have had the opportunity to benefit from some of the benefits that are offered here for veterans. What this does is clarify and protect our local veterans and their interests and benefits that should be provided to them exclusively,” Hodge said.
Bill No. 33-0027, which would give the Department of Education greater flexibility in setting the school calendar during a state of emergency, also passed muster during Tuesday’s session, with only Sen. Kenneth Gittens (D-STX) voting no. Gittens attempted to offer an amendment, later defeated 8-5, that would give the Education Department until September to submit a set of plans to the Senate.
“By the time this bill is signed and gets to them, it gives them two weeks,” Gittens said, adding that the Department of Education, which is currently dealing with consolidation of schools across the territory, has a lot on its plate and would need time to submit a proper report.
Bill sponsor Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX) said the point was to have the necessary plan in place before September, which is when strong hurricanes historically hit the territory, he said.
The Senate also approved two bills, Bill No. 33-0015 and Bill No. 33-0016, related to bringing local policies governing insurance companies up to par with other jurisdictions. The changes are meant to satisfy the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ accreditation standards and provide stronger protections to insurance policyholders in the territory.
Lawmakers also approved Bill No. 33-0099, which mandates the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to take $75,000 reserved for the Centennial Commission and hand it over to the Department of Finance to fund the participation of Little League baseball teams in the 2019 Virgin Islands Regional Tournament.
Sen. Athneil Thomas’ (D-STT) bill to increase the trade name renewal fee from $50 to $100 also passed with non-germane amendments. Sen. Oakland Benta (D-STX) proposed an amendment that would legislate the University of the Virgin Islands’ acceptance of Virgin Islands high school students displaced by the 2017 hurricanes into its free-tuition program.
Sarauw also proposed an amendment that would place cases related to Senate subpoena no-shows to the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands instead of the U.S. District Court, and an amendment that would designate the Department of Property and Procurement to process apprenticeship contracts instead of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Both amendments passed.
Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT) also proposed an amendment that codified “rape by fraud” as any sexual contact that occurred as a result of fraud. All present lawmakers unanimously voted yes.
Sen. Myron Jackson’s amendment expanding the scope of trees designated “heritage trees” to include those surrounding historic sites was also approved.
All measures approved at Tuesday’s senate session will be forwarded to the governor’s desk for approval.