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Designated Health Commissioner has Cheering Section at Budget Hearing

Aug. 10, 2007 — Vivian I. Ebbesen-Fludd, designated commissioner of the Health Department, was literally applauded by her management staff when she presented her department’s budget to the Senate Finance Committee Friday in Frederiksted, suggesting good morale at Health.
At least twice during questioning, Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson said outright that Ebbesen-Fludd was very well prepared and performing very well. Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville and Sen. Ronald Russell also explicitly praised her performance and poise.
“You are probably one of the best fiscal officers that has come before this committee this budget cycle,” Figueroa-Serville said. “I believe you are the person that is needed for the Department of Health. … When the vote comes down, you can consider my vote a yes.”
Whenever there was a positive comment of this sort throughout the hearing, the Health Department management team watching the proceedings from the hearing room gallery would applaud or cheer. During her closing comments, Ebbesen-Fludd sounded slightly embarrassed as she said she wanted the committee to know she had not solicited or encouraged the applause.
“It was not only unprompted, but unprecedented,” Nelson said. “I will probably get a letter from the senate president about maintaining decorum, but it is good to see unity and cohesion in the department. And I think there is room to allow some enthusiasm.”
Russell asked what Health was doing to fill 81 vacant but funded positions. Ebbesen-Fludd said some of the salaries are too low to attract qualified personnel.
“Some of the positions have salaries of $28,000,” she said. “Those salaries make it very difficult to attract people who have specialized training.”
Russell asked about the status of dental care through the Health Department.
“I’m going to be very frank here,” Ebbesen-Fludd said. “The dental services on St. Croix are pretty much non-existent because of the mold situation at Charles Harwood.”
The dental clinic has been largely closed for nearly a year now because of mold in the building. A problem plaguing many government offices, mold in the air ducts poses a possible increased risk of infection. As a precaution, Health has ceased dental surgery and all invasive dental procedures until the problem is cleared up. (See “Health Building Plagued by Health Hazards, Officials and Staff Say.”)
James G. Bernier, capital projects manager and engineer for Health, said a request for proposal was put out in December 2006, but as of March only one bid had been submitted. So Health officials are currently in the process of putting out a second RFP for remediation. Meanwhile, substantial work has been done on the air-conditioning system, which is necessary before any remediation is done.
Sens. Russell, Figueroa-Serville, Nelson and Norman Jn Baptiste each said they hoped some form of universal health coverage legislation could be passed during the 27th Legislature.
“We have a bill coming forward," Russell said. “I’ve spoken to the governor and we’ve identified funding. … Some have suggested looking at models in other states — Massachusetts, for example. … We want to get it on board as soon as possible. What is your view?”
“We have to look at the Medicaid system,” Ebbesen-Fludd said. “Within that Medicaid population is where your greatest needs are, and your greatest noncompliance and nonpayment. Also, in any plan there should be a minimum standard of care. … Many insurance plans don’t cover wellness and preventive care, and those are areas that, with the particular health needs of the territory, will save us large amounts of money in the long run.”
The Health Department budget proposal for 2008 comes to a grand total of $70.8 million. Of that, $35.8 million is Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s recommended appropriation from the General Fund. About $800,000 more comes from the Internal Revenue matching fund and the emergency services special fund. Federal funds of several stripes bring the add $31.9 million toward the total. The remaining $2.3 million comes from the Health revolving fund, which is fed by the various fees for service charged by Health.
Friday’s hearing was informational. The budget will be marked up, amended and voted on in upcoming budget hearings.
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