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Sewage Crisis Forces JFL to Move ER to Cardiac Center; Senate Holds Bills

JFL Acting CEO Richard Evangelista testifies Wednesday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, provided by the V.I. Legislature)
JFL acting CEO Richard Evangelista testifies Wednesday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, provided by the V.I. Legislature)

New details and the most complete picture yet of the sewer system crisis at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital emerged during a special session called by Gov. Kenneth Mapp Wednesday to consider diverting $3 million in federal rum funds to fix it.

Senators ultimately sent that bill to committee for more vetting, concerned about pulling the rum funds away from the collapsing Government Employee Retirement System. Seven other bills Mapp proposed for the session were also sent to committee for a closer look and more consideration.

On May 2, sewage pipes backed up in the JFL Emergency Department and the hospital has been scrambling to deal with the problem ever since, calling in pumping trucks, cleanup crews, VITEMA and Public Works officials and more. (See Related Links below)

Ultimately, the problem is that the cast iron pipes making up the gravity fed sewer system beneath most of the hospital have corroded and are collapsing, JFL acting Executive Director Richard Evangelista told senators.

Salty groundwater has wreaked havoc with old cast iron sewer pipes all over the territory and the Waste Management Authority has put the cost of replacing the entire system territory-wide in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The hospital had OTL, a private contractor, use a mechanical snake to try to clear the sewage drain lines, but that did not work. Then the Waste Management Authority tried with a heavy duty snake, and also could not clear the clog. Evangelista then called an “internal Code Yellow,” and brought in VITEMA. Aa private company ran a camera into the drain. That and a second camera both hit obstructions.

Bathrooms in the Emergency Department were out of service, but staff could use other bathrooms and Crucian Environmental delivered portable toilets for those in the waiting area.

“So there were functioning toilets in the hospital but at that point in time there were none in the Emergency Department,” Evangelista said.

For the next two days the hospital put all but essential employees on administrative leave to reduce strain on the system.

OTL put its mobile camera into a couple of access points inside of the hospital and confirmed at least three areas seven feet below the Emergency Department are stopped by collapsed pipes, he said. Those are: an area in the Emergency Department between a trauma room and a psych hold unit; an area between a bathroom in the OB/GYN exam room and the Emergency Department employee lounge; and an area between the physician’s bathroom and the soiled utility room.

The hospital had a vacuum truck belonging to Anthony Rogers put in place where the effluent waste from the second and third floor enter the drain on the first floor and “immediately, the overflowing toilets and drains ceased leaking,” Evangelista said.

They installed an industrial strength pump to replace the vacuum truck and got an an engineering firm to give an estimate for replacing the entire wastewater system. The rough estimate is $3 million, he said.

On Friday, May 5, JFL lifted the “Code Yellow” alert. But then, Sunday, May 7, wastewater began backing up again. They moved the vacuum truck from the rear to the front of the hospital and the seepage stopped. But Evangelista said that at 11:25 a.m. Sunday, he re-instituted a Code Yellow and began considering moving the Emergency Department to the adjacent V.I. Cardiac Center.

The hospital delayed moving for another day, he said.

“There were too many moving parts that the hospital had to test in the new location before
relocating the ED,” he said.

“As you can imagine, if you have lived in a home for 25 years and move to a new place, for the first or second day you don’t know where the light switches are or where the dishes you packed are,” he said, by way of analogy.

Evangelista’s account appears to contradict that of other hospital officials, who reported Tuesday that the hospital had not yet decided to move the Emergency Department. (See Related Links below.)

The vacuum truck has been applied every three hours and since Sunday the temporary bypass has not failed, he said. So far, the emergency measures have cost about $79,000 plus another $50,000 or so to move the Emergency Department, hospital officials said.

Evangelista said he notified the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on May 2 and has kept them updated since.

Evangelista said he is convinced JFL needs to replace the entire system, but “just to be sure,” they want to map the entire system. He said the Waste Management Authority has “indicated we are dealing with a ticking time bomb” with the cast iron pipes in the system. Most of the building has cast iron, except for small parts that have already been replaced he said. The cost could be either more or less than the $3 million initial estimate, he cautioned too.

Mapp’s proposal would redirect $3 million from leftover funds from an array of completed capital projects and a few projects that never happened. The same bill also appropriates $13 million in federal rum tax funds due to the federal government covering over the full $13.25 per gallon tax, instead of the lower, default $10.50 per gallon the V.I. government’s 2017 budget assumed.

Senators were very sympathetic to the need for repairs but expressed concern about the bill’s summary, which indicated the appropriation would take $4.5 million out of $7 million in rum funds dedicated to the Government Employee Retirement System. The Legislature’s legal counsel said the bill contents conflicted with the summary, which raised more concerns for senators.

“I’m all in support of the hospital getting their money. But what effect will it have on the GERS?” asked Sen. Dwayne DeGraff (D-STT).

“My suspicion senator is we will not be able to transfer the full $7 million to GERS,” Bowry said.

“Has it been regularly transferred” to GERS, DeGraff asked.

“We transferred it last year; the full $7 million and we transferred $1.5 million this year. We will not be able to transfer the full amount because the appropriations exceed the available funding,” Bowry said.

Several senators said they could not accept taking any funds from GERS.

“Any monies taken from GERS I cannot support,” Sen. Jean Forde (D-STT) said. “We’ll find the monies but from some other source.”

Similarly, Sen. Novelle Francis said “I will not be a party to any reduction in funding to GERS.”

Sen. Neville James (D-STX) said all Mapp’s bills would be heard in committee in more detail.

“It is obvious the bills were rushed down,” and had poor language, James said.

The senate voted 14-0 with all seated members present to hold each of the bills before the body, including the JFL appropriation. The other bills deal with matching funds for Medicaid; half a million dollars in capital funding for water heating and chilling system piping for Schneider Regional Medical Center; Education Department projects and two bills for the horse racing industry, on anti-doping rules and a complex formula for dividing up slot machine tax revenues from the horse track slot machine parlors.

The first bills may be heard in the Finance Committee as soon as May 18.

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