The V.I. Department of Health has taken some criticism for its handling of medical evacuees after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly said Wednesday the issue has not been resolved.
O’Reilly, the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services, told the Source, “There simply isn’t enough capacity on St. Croix to provide the services in order to bring the patients back home.”
“I am shocked by the initial lack of coordination of services,” she said. “It is clear that no one ever expected to deal with the consequences of medical evacuation. There was no service navigator at the end site and patients were literally out of the loop for months. Even those who wish to return can’t because their homes are not safe. The archaic and inflexible procurement process delayed the hospitals’ ability to install temporary facilities.”
Health Commissioner Michelle S. Davis did not respond to requests for information from the Source this week, but acknowledged at a budget hearing before the Senate Committee on Finance on June 20 that everything did not go as planned.
“The DOH recognizes that the transition of our people during and after the evacuations was not an easy process,” Davis told senators. “There are many parts of the transport off island and care on the mainland and Puerto Rico that did not go well.”
She added, “I apologize for our failure to appropriately implement and manage the evacuation process, the placement of individuals at health care facilities and patient repatriation. The department continues to develop and modify our processes internally and within the task force so that we can ensure the safety and security of our people now and for future potential evacuations.”
O’Reilly suggested Wednesday “the department should consider meeting with the relatives and patients to lend an ear and express an apology.”
Davis told senators that some media reports were wrong, especially claims that dialysis patients are being evicted from stateside programs. She said the federal government will no longer be paying for stateside treatment for some individuals since there are now openings in the islands for that treatment.
Davis said the DOH collaborated with Schneider Regional Medical Center, Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital and federal agencies to evacuate 805 Virgin Islanders for medical reasons after the storms. Individuals were transported to Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and from St. Thomas to St. Croix.
The evacuation program utilized the National Disaster Medical System and involved FEMA, the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Davis testified that as of mid-June, “Ninety-six individuals remain off island: 56 dialysis patients, 15 non-dialysis patients and 24 non-medical attendants.”
The evacuees program has been expensive, Davis explained. “The federal government has spent approximately $27 million for the transportation, housing, case management, medical care and other supportive services for the medical evacuees, and over $1.8 million for the Emergency Prescription Assistance Program.”
In addition, since the beginning of this year the federal government had assisted in the transfer of over 150 additional individuals out of the territory through self-pay and insurance.
Davis said she and other department employees visited Virgin Islanders in Puerto Rico and Atlanta to see first-hand what was happening with the evacuees.
During her appearance before the Finance Committee senators also had questions about how long it was taking the Health Department to execute contracts.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said, “We cannot continue to have this long-winded process to execute contracts.”