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Delegate Christensen, Postal Officials Vow to Try and Improve Mail Service

June 1, 2006 – Five months. That's how long Alvin Rymsha said it took for him to get his regular magazine subscription. His wife, Anne, who runs Cruisemaster Travel, said in May it took eight days to receive $4,000 worth of cruise tickets that she had purchased via the Internet and shipped priority to the U.S. Virgin Islands from Phoenix.
"I hate to think I have to pay for express mail to get things here on time within a week," she said.
The Rymshas were among a small group of residents who showed up Thursday night at the Curriculum Center in Kingshill to voice their frustrations during a town meeting called by Delegate Donna Christensen.
Christensen said that she called the meetings – the first was held Tuesday on St. John and on Wednesday on St. Thomas – because her office had been inundated with complaints about the mail system. She said that complaints ranged from slow delivery to nondelivery of mail.
On Thursday Christensen and other officials who gathered to hear the complaints directly, got an earful.
Rymsha said that a lot of residents rely on getting medications via mail and that "when they're delayed, people get hurt."
Carole Pimentel is proof of what could happen when mail is slow or not delivered at all. Since September, she said, she has been shipping heart medication to her 20-year-old daughter, a basketball athlete at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. In February, she said, the medication never reached her and she's been afraid of what could happen to her daughter, who has had fainting spells on the court.
She learned at Thursday night's meeting that shipping prescription drugs to the mainland is considered "importation of drugs," under new laws passed after 9/11 and in attempts to stem the flow of drugs purchased from neighboring countries such as Canada and Mexico, according to Mirella Couto of the San Juan-based U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
She said that packages are often delayed because they must go through Customs. Many times, she said, packages must be manually opened, especially when information outside the package says one thing and their high-tech x-ray shows other items not documented.
She said that when Customs began inspecting the packages nearly two years ago, work hours were from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. to coincide with the time that packages are received in Puerto Rico. She said since last year, to speed up the delivery process, the hours are now 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. There are no deliveries on Sunday, she said. Christensen said that she was only made aware of the fact that it was illegal to ship prescription drugs at Wednesday's meeting on St. Thomas when another resident detailed her nightmare. She also said that postal systems nationwide were not "adequately alerted" to that portion of the law and this is the reason why the local postal service has not had an education campaign to alert customers.
"It was an eye-opener for all of us last night, how bad the situation is. As terrible as this is, you cannot mail prescription drugs," she emphasized to a frustrated Pimentel, who said she was inclined to take her chances for the sake of her daughter's health. "This is one area I think we will be able to change," Christensen said.
Couto suggested contacting the Food and Drug Administration to look into whether Pimentel's case can be an exception to the rule. She said currently, the FDA allows shipment of medications in only "life and death situations."
Darryl Miller agreed with others before him who noted that mail leaving the Virgin Islands arrives on time but that it's the reverse – when mail is shipped to the Virgin Islands – that poses a problem.
"We spend money for the postal service, and we want the same quality service as people in the United States," Miller said. "We get short-changed big time."
Miller detailed the problems that many V.I. residents experience when doing business via the Internet. He said that some companies no longer ship outside the 50 states because the Virgin Islands is considered "foreign."
Postmaster Louis Jackson explained that the Virgin Islands experiences longer delays because there are no direct flights to the Virgin Islands in some areas and that mail is not usually brought in on commercial flights. For example, he said, mail coming from the West Coast is flown in to Miami and then trucked to a receiving site before it can be sent to the Virgin Islands.
Couto said that two years ago, the U.S. Postal Service contacted her agency about the delay in packages to the Virgin Islands, which would take 14 to 15 days to clear in Miami and so the packages were then routed to San Juan's Customs Office.
Jackson said that mail from San Juan is then sent to the Kingshill Post Office, where it is processed and then disbursed to other post offices for pickup by customers.
Christensen said she will get back with residents after working with local and federal officials for improvements to the mail service system.
Lou Demeo, USPS Operations Manager in San Juan, said he attended all three meetings and acknowledged it is difficult to avoid delays when mail is coming to the Caribbean – sometimes via boat – in contrast to mail being flown from New York to Connecticut.
"It's not saying we can't do better," he said.
He said he will work with Christensen to see that improvements are made.
"Are we still going to have issues because of Customs? Yes. That's something I cannot change because of regulations," he said.
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