Three of the 11 candidates for governor and a candidate for lieutenant governor offered a mix of observations Saturday on what they consider a "broken" health care system in the Virgin Islands.
Gubernatorial candidates Donna Christensen, Moleto Smith Jr. and Soraya Daise Coffelt along with Calford Martin, candidate for lieutenant governor representing his running mate Marvin Pickering, were guests at a nurse appreciation celebration at Magens Bay.
Christensen, Smith and Martin represent seven of the gubernatorial tickets seeking their party’s nomination in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary. Coffelt represent one of the three independent tickets running in the Nov. 4 general election. An 11th ticket, Dale Francis and Kelvin A. Gonzalez, are running unopposed in the ICM Party’s primary.
The Virgin Islands States Nurses Association staged the event to honor the work nurses have done throughout the territory. The theme of the event, according to Merla Kimball, president of the St. Thomas/St. John District of VISNA, was: “Remembering the past, accepting the present, and making plans for the future.”
VISNA invited the candidates to address issues that have affected the health care system in the past and present and to discuss possible goals for the future of healthcare.
The candidates agreed that the territory’s health care system is in dire shape, and offered an array of thoughts on the problem.
Martin talked about the uninsured population.
“As an owner of a pharmacy I am plagued every day with people walking up to my establishment trying to purchase medication and unable to do so simply because they are uninsured,” said Martin.
Because most of the pharmaceuticals that come into the territory – 98 percent by his estimate – come on carriers that consider the USVI an international destination, which increases the cost. That cost has to be passed on to the consumer.,
Martin said finding a way to lower the price of medicine would make it more accessible to more people, and allow the U.S. Virgin Islands to act as a supplier of medicine in the Caribbean. He said the resulting trade would allow the territory to build up its hospitals, increase the compensation for nurses, keep insured citizens from going elsewhere for health care, and help struggling citizens get the medicine they require.
Coffelt blamed mismanagement of funds as the culprit for problems in the health care system.
“Right now our hospitals are the tenth item on the budget,” Coffelt said. “If we want our hospitals to be better, we have to fund them better. But we need to understand that we have money problems and we have to do away with waste.”
Coffelt also emphasized the “revolving door” that she said deeply affects the mentally ill in the community. The mentally ill are picked up by the police, taken up to the psychiatric ward, treated and then released back into the community without the support system they need, causing the cycle to repeat itself.
Coffelt suggested partnerships with researchers will enliven the healthcare environment of the U.S. Virgin Islands. She said the Mayo Clinic in Puerto Rico had partnered with the University of Puerto Rico to research cancers that are prevalent in the Caribbean. Coffelt felt this was a model to emulate.
“We could easily track down scientists that want to study Caribbean diseases and tie it to the university and the hospitals,” Coffelt said.
Donna Christensen, a physician who was commissioner of the V.I. Department of Health before being elected delegate to Congress, said she is disheartened at the state of the health care system and its inability to provide adequate service for those who need it. She also expressed disappointment that the territory didn’t procure more federal funding during the health care reform process.
“It is disheartening for me as a member of Congress who worked very hard to provide the many provisions in the Affordable Healthcare Act to see it lost in the Senate and coming down to us in its current form,” she said.
Her proposals for improving health care include better preparedness and planning, and restructuring the system.
“The entire system needs to be restructured,” Christensen said. “We need to take a look at where we are, what services our community needs, what we are providing, where our strengths and weaknesses are, and start to address them.”
Smith didn’t mince words when he discussed what he thought was the reason for the broken health care system.
“Fundamental mismanagement, waste, fraud, and abuse are the things that underpin most of the problems we are experiencing now,” Smith said. “Some would even stretch to say corruption.”
Smith called for an overhaul of practices within the government to alleviate poverty in the territory and improve availability of health care for all citizens.
“We are at a juncture in this cycle where we must look fundamentally at how we are going to move forward. We must deal with the waste and corruption that underpins our current struggles,” Smith said.
After the candidates spoke, Charlene Jones, President of VISNA for the territory, offered a stern warning to them all.
“We advise you that we will no longer be sitting back and we will no longer let the government of the Virgin Islands walk all over our backs,” said Jones. “We need you to look at this and we need you to fix the problem.”