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Patience Wanes after St. John’s Long Wait to Restore Healthcare

Sen. Ray Fonseca addresses concerns about healthcare from St. John residents at town hall meeting. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

When the lawmaker tasked with heading the Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services held a town meeting on St. John, the crowd that came was small but vocal. Sen. Ray Fonseca and the agency he heads assembled to address community concerns from frustrated residents, saying they have been deprived of needed healthcare.

Among those sharing their stories was a woman who said she has spent one year trying to get medical assistance for a disabled relative. Others criticized the departments of Health and Human Services for not providing services on St. John, forcing residents to travel across St. Thomas, seeking care.

“Why do we need to go to St. Thomas to deal with situations that we should be able to deal with on St. John? St. John has a Human Services office right down the street. If you need to apply for whatever kind of services, whether it’s medical assistance, food stamps — whatever — senior card, anything; you have to go to St. Thomas to get that done,” said resident Penny Lambert.

“And then, when you go to St. Thomas, it’s a runaround — come back next week; do this, do that — and it’s still not done … I applied for medical assistance in August 2022. We are now in August 2023; up until now I have not gotten a response from them.”

Complaints aired at the Friday town meeting hosted by Fonseca reflected on the seven years residents have been without their primary healthcare facility. The Myrah Keating-Smith Clinic suffered water damage from the 2017 hurricanes and mold infestation after that.

Modular buildings sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were set up and opened in May 2018 and have served as temporary replacements ever since.

Retired St. John Public Health Nurse Sally Brown also pointed out that most of the services that were once available at the island’s remaining public health center — the Morris F. deCastro Clinic — aren’t available anymore.

“Senator Fonseca — if you’re listening — St. John doesn’t have good health services, no matter what you’re told here tonight. Most of the services that used to be provided — and are on that board out there, outside that clinic — do not exist. We need care on this island. We are not second-class services, even though some of the Americans here think we are,” Brown said.

Representatives from Health and Human Services listened as Lambert and others voiced their concerns. Coral Bay resident Delroy Anthony asked when the Keating-Smith Clinic would reopen.

“Where’s our St. John hospital, state of the art? Where’s our school, in St. John, state of the art?” Anthony said. “I’d like to ask Mr. Fonseca what happened to our clinic. Why isn’t it open?”

Schneider Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Tina Commissiong said the restoration process has been long and slow.

“As we all know, it has taken a lot longer than any of us would have liked for the federal FEMA determinations to come in for the amounts we will have for the rebuilding,” Commissiong said. “We are very much looking forward to rebuilding the full Myrah Keating-Smith (Clinic), and moving out of the trailers and providing more extensive patient care in a full-scale state-of-the-art building as was described.”

The medical center chief expressed the hope that construction could start in a year and the new, permanent structure would be ready for occupancy within two to three years.

At the end of the 90-minute exchange, Fonseca said he wanted to focus on disaster preparedness at the Friday meeting. But the lawmaker added he couldn’t help but be impressed with those who spoke out.

“I was very, very impressed by the frankness the participants expressed. Some of them were frustrated, and I expected that, but I think the frustration level was a little bit more,” he said.

Fonseca added that he keeps office hours on St. John, at the Cruz Bay Legislature building every third Thursday between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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