The lack of continuity between government administrations and the inability to bring critical projects to completion were cited this weekend as barriers to solving some key community issues, ranging from crime reduction to increasing access to mental health resources.
The conclusion – particularly around the general lack of data and a system to centralize it – was one of the key takeaways from an all-day women’s conference on St. Thomas hosted on Saturday by Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, who invited about 40 women from all three government branches, the private sector and nonprofits – an equal mix of women working in the public and private sectors – to answer four key questions:
– How can we best improve access to quality mental health resources, and how can we better educate the most vulnerable on the importance of mental wellness?
– Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline in our public education system may help reduce violent crime in the territory; how can we identify and better serve high-risk and at-risk students in a comprehensive fashion beginning at birth?
– Despite more information sharing about foster care, child abuse and domestic violence issues in the community, many women and children face abuse in the home and often years without dependable help. How can we support victims and survivors before, during and after escaping the abuser/abusive household?
– How can we prepare to successfully provide the elderly with the care, services and facilities they will need to live out their lives?
The hope, after smaller and larger discussion groups met, was to pinpoint solutions that could lead to legislation, inform public awareness efforts or policy or be solved through some sort of executive action. Though the conversation around each topic was robust, the group kept hitting on two to three connecting points they agreed needed to be looked at first before some of the larger efforts could succeed.
First was the lack of a central data system, though Frett-Gregory and several of the attendees spoke at length about VIVIS, the virtual information system launched in 2012-2013 after the Education Department received a $2.6 million federal grant for its design and implementation. In short, VIVIS is meant to track and store data on each child in the territory from birth to death, from educational data to social services and other data collected across government departments and private sector agencies.
The use of quality, real-time data could be a gamechanger in each of the four scenarios, providing information on exactly what is needed and by whom, the group determined. Frett-Gregory and Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin added that getting to the endpoint isn’t far-fetched, either, each of the individual systems within the departments and agencies are set up but don’t “talk to each other,” meaning that getting them interconnected would be the next step.
Establishing a system or team to manage, cull and interpret the data is another step, which Berry-Benjamin said is ongoing, but has been stymied by a lack of clarity around who will oversee it.
Further delaying the rollout of systems like VIVIS was the second point: a lack of continuity between government administrations, an experience shared by many in the room. Along with Health, Education, Justice and Human Services departments represented on the government side, Saturday’s conference also included female judges and senators, executive directors of women’s coalitions, philanthropic organizations and public clinics, along with media influencers, among others.
“When good policy is established, it doesn’t just stop when an administration ends,” moderator Noreen Michael reminded the group as the discussion continued.
A third obstacle is a general lack of staffing, particularly in fields such as nursing, where registered nurses or licensed registered nurses are required in facilities from schools to mental health and senior centers. Better recruitment and equitable pay were discussed, but so were outside the box solutions such as advocating for more public-private partnerships, where it could be easier to take advantage of resources that may not be available locally, and implementing more workforce development programs that could lead by qualified private or nonprofit agencies.
Finally, Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez stressed the continued need for more equity in funding and benefits available for the territory and states, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Over the past decade, federal policymakers have temporarily raised the territories’ Medicaid allotments and matching rates, but those short-term fixes haven’t allowed territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to make sustained program improvements. The latest temporary increase, a two-year package that policymakers enacted in 2019, is set to expire fully at the end of September. This funding cliff could force territories to cut benefits such as prescription drugs and dental care, and many people could lose their Medicaid coverage altogether, including over half of enrollees in Guam and the USVI, according to federal news reports.
“Every year we go to Congress to fight, to fight, to fight,” Causey-Gomez said. “If we don’t get equality, it will be difficult for us to sustain ourselves. We have to receive and use federal funding in a way that is structured for our islands.”