Sept. 29, 2009 — Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on Friday evening signed the government's $100 million group health and life insurance package into law. The current plan, utilized by about 15,000 government employees and retirees, expires midnight Saturday.
The package cleared the full Senate body Friday afternoon during an emergency legislative session. At that time, senators expressed much concern over the late submission of the insurance package, which hit the desk of Senate President Lorraine L. Berry on Monday, Sept. 25.
While the plans were ratified, many senators condemned Turnbull for putting their "backs against the wall."
Earlier this week, Turnbull sent a letter to Berry requesting that an emergency session be called to ratify the plans. When contacted Monday, Berry said that government employees would have no insurance coverage if the plans were not considered and ratified by the Senate by Oct. 1.
According to V.I. law, the Health Insurance Board of Trustees shall enter into an agreement to purchase health insurance with a carrier, then submit the agreement to the governor no later than 120 days prior to the termination of the existing agreement. If the agreement is approved by the governor, it is then submitted to the Legislature for ratification.
While the law states that the Legislature should ratify the plans no later than 60 days prior to the expiration of the existing agreement, senators said they were, this year, forced into considering the government's insurance agreement the day before it expired.
During Friday's session, senators spent much time "condemning" Turnbull for not approving the plans earlier. When Berry said she anticipated the meeting would stretch beyond 6 p.m., many said they had already booked afternoon flights to St. Croix, to attend the wake of former Sen. G. Luz A. James.
"I'm not going to be here," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said, adding that Turnbull's last minute submission of the insurance agreement forced senators to "rubber stamp" the plans without having the opportunity to thoroughly peruse them.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. added that representatives from CIGNA, the government's medical health insurance carrier, should be "paddled."
"We should at least get a paddle and tell them, 'Shame on you,'" White said. "We should clap them on the back and say, 'Yes, we're going to pass this, but don't ever do it again.'"
Paulette Rabsatt-Simmonds, chair of the Government Employees Service Commission (GESC)/Health Insurance Board of Trustees, apologized for the "untimely" submission of the plans, and listed a number of circumstances which led to the delay including the loss of a "significant" employee, difficulties in developing contracts with various insurance carriers and the board's inability to meet with Turnbull to discuss the plans.
At the end of the session, Queen Terry, Turnbull's chief legal counsel, appeared suddenly in the legislative chambers, citing the need to "set the record straight."
"The governor has been blamed for the late submission of the health and medical insurance contracts to this body because he did not meet with the GESC/Health Insurance Board of Trustees in a timely manner," Terry said. "Please be advised that no where in the V.I. Code does it require the governor to meet with the board."
Terry added that according to law, Turnbull was supposed to have submitted the new plans to the Legislature around July 30. "However, the governor did not receive the agreements until Friday, Sept. 22 at approximately 10:15 p.m.," she said.
"Based on the testimony here today, it is quite obvious that the board did not have any agreement to submit to the governor around July therefore, it is incorrect and unfair to blame him for the delay," Terry added.
Berry disagreed, and said the blame should be placed on Turnbull. "It's been the modus operandi of this administration to send things to the Legislature during the night, on the weekends, all hours," she said. "To have the agreement come in on Saturday and not be stamped in until Monday is unacceptable. Counsel, I appreciate your statement, but I do not agree with it."
As a result, Berry and other senators said they were approving the insurance plans "under protest."
Senators also approved a bill providing government employees with voluntary vision coverage (See "Government Employees, Retirees to Face Increased Premium Costs").
Another bill, allowing Medicare Part D (Prescription Drug Program) funds awarded to the territory by the federal government to be deposited into the local Health Insurance Fund, was also approved.
According to Rabsatt-Simmonds, the federal government subsidizes employers who offer their own prescription drug coverage program. Rabsatt-Simmonds said in the territory, prescription drug benefits will now be administered by CIGNA.
Present during Friday's session were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Nelson, Usie R. Richards, Ronald E. Russell and White Sr.
Sens. Louis P. Hill and Shawn-Michael Malone were absent.
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