Virgin Islands residents might be able to pick up some work for a year or three or more because of new grant money the V.I. Department of Health is receiving.
Commissioner of Health Michelle S. Davis a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee Monday that the department would be hiring between 40 and 50 people in the near future because of $12 million in federal grant money.
In answer to a question from Sen. Kurt Vialet, chair of the Senate Finance committee, Davis said the department would be hiring as many local residents as it could, but cautioned that many of the positions required specialty training that might require hiring from the continent.
Besides those new positions opening under new federal grants, the department has another 44 permanent vacancies it hopes to fill in the coming fiscal year.
The department already is a big employer for the territory. Its budget proposal included funding for 432 positions. The employee statistics year-to-date presented by the commissioner said 75 percent of its employees are classified and 19 percent exempt. Six percent of the employees work part time. The department has 228 employees on the General Fund and 126 employees on grant funding. Another 12 position are supported by a mixture of funds. From October 2016 to August 2017 the department hired 38 people, received 17 resignations; 11 people retired and five were terminated.
Total salary costs for the department will be almost $20 million.
The department’s recommended budget is $59.5 million. The biggest chunk – 42 percent – is funded from the General Fund, but federal sources come in a close second, funding 36 percent. Other funding comes from the Health Revolving Fund; miscellaneous funds and nonappropriated funds.
The proposed budget is an increase of more than $1 million from last year’s budget, which prompted Sen. Brian Smith to observe that, since the government was in financial straits, “Almost every other department we have seen come in here showed a decrease.”
Davis said said the budget request included an increase of $4 million for off-island care for mental health patients. She said that included the cost of 20 patients for which the department was taking responsibility for from the the Bureau of Corrections.
Also adding new costs to the budget were $90,446 for a cancer registry; $286,584 for the Vital Records Information Management System and $500,000 to address sickle cell outreach and education in the territory.
Davis reported that during the present fiscal year the department has received five new ambulances and refurbished two others. Now all seven are working in the territory.
Updating the senators on how many resident the department serves, Davis gave these numbers for the year 2016 – 22, 231 individuals (12,925 on St. Croix and 9,306 on St. Thomas/St. John.) So far this current fiscal year, approximately 17,843 (more than 9,000 on St. Croix and 8,843 on St. Thomas/St. John) individuals have received care. The department collected approximately $3.1 million for these services.
Davis said this amount of revenue collection had not been achieved in over 10 years.
Vialet, however, questioned why the revenue collection for the St. Thomas/St. John district was lower than St. Croix’s collection figures even though there were more emergency calls on St. Thomas. “Clearly who ever has been doing the billing on St. Thomas is not submitting the bills,” the senator said, adding that because of the government’s present financial crunch, “Everyone who deals with collecting funds needs to take it seriously.”
Davis pointed out that her department often serves as the safety net for many individuals – no one is turned away and all customers can take advantage of a sliding fee scale if necessary.
She highlighted a partnership with the Starkey Foundation that provided 150 free hearing aids to those in need on the island of St. Croix – the youngest client being five and the oldest older than 80. Hearing aids can range from $799 to more than $4,000 for each device, depending on the level of technology. Most people with hearing loss need two hearing aids, and most insurance providers do not cover this cost.
She also told senators that the department was progressing with building its own lab to allow the department to perform high complexity testing. The department will no longer have to ship specimens off island as it utilizes a two-story, $3.8 million laboratory in the Charles Harwood building.
Davis told the senators that department administrators were going to go through the budget to find funds to give employees raises “starting with the nurses.”
Sen.Dwayne DeGraff responded, “That is the best news I have heard all week.”
Also attending the hearing were Sens. Neville James, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Tregenza A. Roach