ST. CROIX- Members of the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services chaired by Senator Novelle E. Francis convened in a meeting at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room. Senators voted in the affirmative for Bill 34-0055- An Act amending Title Virgin Islands Code by adding a new chapter 4 to be known as the “Responsible Fatherhood Act.” Separately, lawmakers received testimony on an overview of the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center and the Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC). The approved item will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.
The measure seeks to create the Council on Responsible Fatherhood within the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services (DHS). The Council is charged with various responsibilities designed to increase the involvement of fathers in the lives of their children and their families. The Responsible Fathers’ Fund is also created to fund the operation and initiatives of the Council, as stated on the bill. The Mission Project Chief Executive Officer and Founder Carlton Stevens indicated that the Fatherhood Council will be ideal for enabling the Territory to create an independent forum to test ideas, strategize, and receive counsel from experts regarding fatherhood initiatives. Senator Milton E. Potter, the bill sponsor, noted that there are many public assistance programs but oftentimes the need to foster and support the positive roles of fathers is overlooked. This Act is an attempt to shine a bright light on fatherhood in the Territory. DHS Assistant Commissioner Michal Rhymer-Browne mentioned that DHS is funded by the Federal Government with federal grants with guidelines that mandate the promotion of responsible fatherhood and positive family engagement in local programs. Rhymer-Browne added that financial contributions locally can also assist in growing the programs.
Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Douglas E. Koch shared an update. To mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Koch stated that renovations to the Intensive Care Unit were completed, the second floor was reopened to expand the number of available beds, and the emergency room and patient rooms continue to be deep-cleaned. Additional projects are inclusive of repairing the visitor’s elevators, generators, and air handler roof, installing the medical vacuum pump and motor, and repairing laboratory equipment. From January 1st-10th, Koch noted that a total of 347 patients were seen in the emergency room, and out of that 137 were patients infected with COVID-19. To date, JFL continues to remain in accreditation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Virgin Islands Department of Health.
Similarly sharing an update, the Schneider Regional Medical Center Interim Chief Executive Officer Attorney Tina M. Comissiong mentioned that approximately 15,040 patients were seen from 2020 to present in the Emergency Room, an estimated 10,000 patients received outpatient hemodialysis treatments, and there were 23,000 outpatient services at SRMC. Despite ongoing patient care, Comissiong noted that some of the biggest challenges are severe staff shortages and the inability to retain staff due to the lack of competitive salaries compared to lucrative travel contracts nationwide. Presently, SRMC has 83 nurses out of the 149 hired as permanent staff. Similarly, there are only 7 out of 21 permanent registered nurses required to work in the emergency room. Sen. Francis inquired about how the vaccine mandate affected the number of staff at the hospitals. In response, the Virgin Islands Government Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation Chairman Christopher Finch noted that at SRMC 90% of the staff are vaccinated while JFL only has 87% who are vaccinated.
Senator Francis stated that the purpose of the hearing is to get a level of understanding in order for lawmakers to move forward in lending assistance to improving the healthcare system. Regardless of the situation, Virgin Islanders rely heavily on hospitals and medical facilities in the Virgin Islands. “We are appreciative of the work medical professionals are doing in our communities.” Ultimately, the committee recessed and is expected to reconvene in the coming weeks to receive an update from the Department of Human Services.
Senators attending the meeting: Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Genevieve R. Whitaker, Kurt A. Vialet, Samuel Carrión, Carla J. Joseph, Kenneth L. Gittens, Alma Francis Heyliger, Janelle K. Sarauw, and Milton E. Potter.