81.4 F
Cruz Bay
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
HomeNewsArchivesHealth Insurance Impasse Forces Legislature To Delay Executive Budget

Health Insurance Impasse Forces Legislature To Delay Executive Budget

The V.I. Legislature acted on a slew of appropriation bills for semi-autonomous agencies like the courts, the Legislature and the University of the Virgin Islands, but was forced to delay a vote on the main $665 million budget bill because the Government Employee Services Commission has not submitted a signed government health insurance contract. [30-0463]

Without the contract, there was no way to know what the cost of the government insurance plan would be, senators said. The governor’s proposed budget, which continues the back to back budget cuts most agencies have received the last several years, allocates $150.9 million for government employees’ insurance, making it the second largest single government budget item, after the Education Department budget. The GESC, which negotiates the contract, initially refused to cut benefits to meet the available funding.

At the outset of Friday’s hearing, Sen. Sammuel Sanes expressed frustration that there was no insurance package yet, saying he did not see the sense of urgency the situation demands from either the GESC or administration officials. And over the course of the hearing, he said several times that they hoped to see a signed agreement they could approve but it had not yet arrived.

Late in the afternoon, a clerk read into the record a letter from Gov. John deJongh Jr. to GESC Chair Clemmie Moses, saying he had received a set of documents, but "the package contains wholly unsigned documents." Since there "is no indication the parties are in agreement, I strongly suggest the board negotiate an extension not to exceed 60 days" to allow all the parties to come to agreement.

In light of the letter, "It makes no sense in terms of either finance or our time to continue with this session at this time, since we do not have this contract in hand and we don’t know what to put in the budget," Sanes said. He said the GESC should have held marathon sessions if necessary to get the work completed.

"We have been here almost four days straight working, the (GESC) board couldn’t do that?" Sanes asked. “Yes, I am pointing fingers.”

Sen. Graham agreed.

"At this stage of the game we really don’t know the final figure," Graham said. “Yes, they are talking about requesting an extension of 60 days," but there is no way of knowing if there will be an extension or what it will cost, Graham said. "If they do extend the contract, it will have a cost," he said.

Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said he still wants to know what happens at midnight on Sept. 30, when the current contract expires, “if they even agree to negotiate an extension." Malone recessed the session until Tuesday, Sept. 30, the final day to get the insurance contract signed.

Before recessing, the Legislature approved 27 separate budget bills, including a complicated array of fund transfers, from numerous revenue sources to various legislated purposes, without much fanfare or opposition. Several St. Croix non-majority senators voted against some of the bills, sometimes out of concern that St. Croix was not benefiting, and other times to protest their lack of input and a desire for more information.

The six St. Croix senators present Friday united to support a measure from Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly to mandate that a planned medical school be built on St. Croix and to not allow any funds to be spent for a medical school on St. Thomas until one is built on St. Croix. O’Reilly said St. Croix needs the jobs more, and said the St. Thomas senators "don’t care" about St. Croix.

"I think we are misleading the public here. It is to be built partially on St. Croix and partially on St. Thomas," said Sen. Tregenza Roach. UVI consultants are recommending the medical school itself, which would be very, very small, with no more than 25 to 50 students, would be on St. Thomas, while a medical "simulation laboratory" with surgical practice dummies would be built on St. Croix.

The problem with putting the medical school on St. Croix is it needs to work on a daily basis with an accredited hospital, and the St. Croix hospital is not accredited and in the midst of a major crises, Roach said. "So if we are rejecting a medical school in the Virgin Islands, let’s put it on the record," Roach said.

Sen. Craig Barshinger agreed, saying, "If we don’t follow the guidelines from the donor and UVI, we could lose the whole thing, so let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Later he poked O’Reilly a bit, saying, "There is a way of bringing home the bacon to St. Croix without grandstanding on the Senate floor."

"Who put you in charge of bringing home the bacon to St. Croix, you?" O’Reilly yelled at Barshinger in response.

In the 2012 election 6,515 St. Croix voters voted for Barshinger and 4,800 for O’Reilly, although the fact that the St. Croix senators have to compete with each other tends to reduce their vote tallies in comparison to the at-large seat held by Barshinger.

O’Reilly’s proposals regarding the medical school was voted down.

A $1.2 million appropriation from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund was approved over the strenuous objection of Barshinger.

"Remember, the governor has given us a false accounting of the St. John Capital Improvement Fund," Barshinger said, adding work on Coral Bay and the St. John vendors plaza were rejected "because there is a fantasy of $9.3 million in encumbrances that no one can find anywhere.”

In late 2013, deJongh vetoed an appropriation from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund, saying it was over-encumbered and the Legislature overturned the veto Jan. 16 of 2014. (See Legislature Overrides Veto to Spend $1 Million It May Not Have in Related Links below) But the bill appropriates more than $1 million from the "over-encumbered" fund. [30-0476]

Voting for the bill were: Sens. Sanes, Donald Cole, Kenneth Gittens, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Clifford Graham, Myron Jackson, Clarence Payne, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Janette Millin Young. Voting no were: Barshinger, Malone, O’Reilly, Roach and Sen. Judi Buckley. Sen. Diane Capehart was absent.

Overall, the budget bills appear to be close, but a little different from the proposed budgets discussed by each agency during budget hearings this summer. For example, the governor’s FY15 recommended budget for the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands is $26.9 million from the General Fund, while the court requested $31.28 million. The budget bill appropriates $27.7 million to the Superior Court – more than proposed, but well under the request.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.