Feb. 24, 2004 – The chair of the Senate Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee recessed a hearing Tuesday on a bill that would privatize the operations of two community health centers.
The bill would transfer operations of the East End Family Health Center on St. Thomas to St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corp., and those of the Frederiksted Health Center/Ingeborg Nesbitt Clinic to Frederiksted Health Care Inc. The proposal first came before the committee in October.
Sen. Douglas Canton Jr., the committee chair, said the panel will reconvene on March 8 to vote on the bill. He said he recessed the hearing until then in order to give the affected parties time to finalize a memorandum of agreement between themselves and the government which as of Tuesday had "not been drafted to finality."
Privatization of the health center operations has been in the works for three years, and passage of the bill would complete the transfer. According to Canton, it is a nationwide trend for community health centers to be operated by not-for-profit agencies instead of government health agencies.
A major reason is that private not-for-profit service agencies can apply for federal funding that is not available to local government entities. The biggest stumbling block to approval of privatizing the clinic operations has been concern about the status of current government employees.
At the October hearing, the bill was sent back to be redrafted after concerns arose from Health Department employees about whether their jobs would be protected and whether their benefits as government employees would be affected by the transfer.
Elmo Adams, a member of the administration's Health Centers Task Force, testified on Tuesday that "after more than two years of discussion, dialogue and negotiation," the affected parties have reached "unanimous agreement" on the transfers.
The bill now under consideration specifies that the personnel merit system, Government Employees Retirement System and applicable collective bargaining agreements would not be "amended, repealed or otherwise changed" by its enactment. The measure also would make the employees eligible for the government's health insurance program.
Adams, who also is assistant legal counsel to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, urged the legislators to approve the bill.
"This is a golden opportunity for the territory to seize and maximize those federal funds that are available to establish, maintain and grow our present — and maybe prospective — not-for-profit corporations that will provide much-needed community health needs," Adams said.
He also said that "failure of the body to act on this transfer will result in the loss of the federal funding that is needed for the operation of the not-for-profit corporations."
Sen. Usie Richards, however, said the legislation as proposed is "broad, plain and dangerous, and I will not support it."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste also expressed displeasure with the bill. "Since the beginning of the Turnbull administration, there has been a drive toward the privatization of government entities, and I am definitely not going to go along with that," he said.
The transfer of the clinic operations must be completed by March 31 in order for the not-for-profit entities to be able to quality for federal funding in the next fiscal year.
Committee members present at the hearing were Sens. Baptiste, Lorraine Berry, Canton, Emmett Hansen II, Luther Renee and Richards. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg was not present. Also present was Sen. Louis Hill, who is not a member of the committee.
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