When The Consortium was urgently contacted on May 14 to the Juan F. Luis Hospital to hear the grievances of employees who expressed hurt and anger at the Bryan administration’s planned use of a one-time $39.5 million Medicaid reimbursement, these employees did not give any indication that they had been informed by hospital leadership of discussions held with the Bryan administration on how the funds would be spent.
In a followup gathering at the hospital, this time including some St. Croix District senators along with the leadership of the hospital, there was no sign from the hospital top brass or the lawmakers, that there were talks held that included them for the planned use of the funds.
In fact, the senators expressed frustration at how the process to use the funds — a one-time Medicaid windfall sent to five of the territory’s medical facilities — was handled, and senator after senator present at the gathering indicated that the former Senate leadership, including former Senate President Kenneth Gittens and former Senate Vice President Donna Frett-Gregory, met with the Bryan administration without their knowledge or involvement.
Yet in a statement issued Wednesday night, Mr. Bryan said the priorities for the bill were determined with “cooperation” from the hospitals.
“Through the cooperation of the then-Finance chair Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, then-Senate President Kenneth Gittens, The Virgin Islands Water, and Power Authority, and the hospitals, we distributed the $39 million in Medicaid funds owed to the Government of the Virgin Islands in the most responsible way to address these outstanding obligations,” Mr. Bryan said.
The proposed use of the $39.5 million included roughly $22 million for utility payments owed by the hospitals to the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority. These payments, Mr. Bryan contends, are desperately needed. “This decision was key in ensuring that we don’t see a tremendous spike in electrical rates at WAPA, which could rise as high as 54 cents kW/hr negatively impacting the budgets of both residential and commercial customers. The government’s use of these funds to pay what is years-long overdue for the use of electricity helps to sustain the operations of the hospital and VIWAPA and keeps everyone’s rates from rising higher than what is already proposed,” the governor said.
In late April, WAPA’s governing board approved another rate increase request, which the board said was required for WAPA to generate approximately $55 million in revenue for Fiscal Year 2020. If the request were to be rejected by the Public Services Commission, the territory would face blackouts, according to Noel Loftus, a member of the WAPA board.
In his statement, Mr. Bryan said he and his team have worked “tirelessly to ensure a speedy and efficient recovery and have promoted economic development initiatives to ensure a strong economy that can last beyond the recovery.” He said over the last several months since taking office, his administration “considered the leadership of the 33rd Legislature led by then-Senate President Kenneth Gittens and Vice President Donna Frett-Gregory with a coalition of the majority of members as partners in that effort. Together, we have had numerous discussions and have conferred on plans to work together to not only reduce the overall debt of our hospitals and other agencies but also to address an issue which not only affects our government’s instrumentalities but every resident in the territory.”
Though Mr. Bryan may have spoken with WAPA and the former leadership of the Senate on his administration’s proposed use of the funds, senators, including members of the Committee on Finance, said they were left out of the discussions and were not thoroughly apprised.
“Certain decisions were made between the former Finance Committee chair and the Office of the Governor. That’s just the bottomline,” said Senator Alicia Barnes on Tuesday during the meeting at JFL. “The bill was sent down with certain directives for certain priorities, and it was obvious that a determination was made between the former Finance chair and the Office of the Governor that these would be the spending priorities, and it was basically force-fed to the Finance Committee.
Ms. Barnes added, “We all know that many things have happened in the Legislature since then, and we want to move forward more collaboratively where there’s consensus building, and where there isn’t force-feeding of measures coming down from the Office of the Governor. That is just the bottomline. So we are here to hit the reset bottom and re-engage this measure in a participatory, collaborative way, beginning with the committee of jurisdiction which is the Committee on Finance. But the origin of most of those spending priorities were discussed between the former Finance chair and the Office of the Governor.”
“We have decided as a whole to send this bill back to Finance so that we could have continued vetting,” said Senate President Novelle Francis. “From all intents and purposes we discovered during discussions that in fact some of the individuals, major stakeholders, weren’t involved in some of the decision-making process.”
The controversy over the proposed use of the $39.5 million ignited a firestorm that in part led to the reorganization of the Senate’s leadership last week. The Bryan administration remained quiet while the historic event was unfolding, but it was forced to respond as senators linked the planned use of the monies — forged, they said, in silo — to the Office of the Governor.