The Virgin Islands Department of Human Services is said to be shambles, with a number of inefficiencies that threaten the livelihoods of the vulnerable in the community, as well as the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding for critically needed programs.
In a letter sent by Senator Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly to Governor Kenneth Mapp on Monday, the senator, who is serving her last few months in office as she has chosen not to seek a Senate seat in the upcoming 33rd Legislature, listed a myriad of issues affecting D.H.S. in an effort to bring to Mr. Mapp’s attention the dire state of the department. Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly, who chairs the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services, has vast knowledge of the problems plaguing the department. She told The Consortium late Monday that after multiple attempts to work with D.H.S. Commissioner Felicia Blyden (seen above) to no avail, it was time to expose the ineptness of the department’s top brass.
“Inasmuch as I like to preserve relationships with heads of agencies under the jurisdiction of my committee, I have a responsibility to expose problem areas and to find solutions,” Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly said. “Our office made numerous attempts to work with Commissioner Blyden and the issues addressed in my letter are not foreign to her.”
Case in point: The threat of closure of the Virgin Islands Behavioral Services (V.I.B.S.) because of nonpayment. At-risk youth depend on a number of services provided by V.I.B.S.; its closure — which was temporarily avoided following a suit brought against D.H.S., Mr. Mapp and Office of Management and Budget Director Julio Rhymer by the Virgin Islands Volunteer Advocates for Children, Inc. — would spell disaster for the U.S.V.I.
The agreement with V.I.B.S., Ms. Blyden told The Consortium in court on Friday, included a provision that would see the company keeping its doors open beyond the closure date, which was set for this week. In theory, this should help D.H.S. prepare for a transition to transfer the at-risk youth to other institutions without disruption. But Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly said D.H.S. had not furnished a plan detailing how it intended to handle the transfer.
“The closure of V.I.B.S. crystallized for me the sad reality that the department is woefully deficient and unable to tackle both small and large issues,” Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly said. “In March 2017 V.I.B.S. informed the department that it would be closing its doors. As recent as Friday, Commissioner Blyden and her staff still did not have a written plan for the transition of these children.
“This is simply unconscionable. Frankly I am tired of people meeting and talking and making excuses. When you accept a job as a commissioner you have to be prepared to make decisions and to get things done. The responses provided during the budget hearing are just another example of a department that is on a collision path and refuses to change course.”
Below, a list of issues included in Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly’s letter to the governor.
⇒ $11.5 million for disaster case management is in jeopardy.
⇒ St. Croix employees are displaced, mold infestation has not been addressed, and these employees operate without telephone and computers.
⇒ Over twelve contracts for services remain unpaid.
⇒ D.H.S. was notified that V.I.B.S. was terminating its services over a year ago. Even so, stakeholders were not informed and a plan of transition was not created. And despite imminent closure, a plan of action was still not in place and instead young people were discharged to dysfunctional homes and without a plan of care.
⇒ D.H.S. entered into an illegal contract for $220,000 with Housekeepers Pro, LLC. A payment was processed for this vendor without the knowledge of either Property and Procurement (P&P) or the Department of Finance. As of Friday’s budget hearing, P&P did not have a copy of the contract.
⇒ Multiple vendors remain unpaid, threatening to remove critical services.
⇒ Close to $300,000 in federal funds for the vocational rehabilitation program will be lost because the funds were not spent and waivers were not processed timely.
⇒ Nurses at the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged on St. Croix have threatened to walk out as a result of a contract not being executed and payment not being made. The Queen Louise Home for the Aged in St. Thomas is facing similar circumstances: the generator is not working and the facility remains without physicians and a night nurse.
⇒ The Medical Assistance Program (M.A.P.) is in a state of confusion. An accurate list of doctors who are M.A.P. providers does not exist, with patients having to wait weeks for referrals. Furthermore, doctors who seek enrollment to be credentialed as M.A.P. service providers wait months and even years to be approved, and the renewal process is exhausting. Compounding the problem, the limited number of doctors who currently accept M.A.P. are not paid timely and are reconsidering accepting M.A.P. patients.
⇒ Shelters have not been inspected and certified for new hurricane season. (Mona Barnes, the director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said VITEMA had inspected 20 hurricane shelters territory-wide, and that only “two or three” were deemed suitable. It was not clear whether Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly was referring to a separate sheltering program specific to D.H.S.)
⇒ Cancer patients’ travel cancelled and off-island appointments delayed.
⇒ On June 2, 2017, D.H.S. indicated that improvement projects were underway at the Youth Rehabilitation Center (Y.R.C.) and quotes were being awaited. However, as of June 8, 2018, many of the issues in an assessment report persist and quotes are still being awaited. All this even as funding is available for the improvement projects. Issues at Y.R.C. include no food for children, no generator, mold, flooding and no air condition in the kitchen.
⇒ Head Start program funding is in jeopardy.
⇒ No progress from the Virgin Islands Inter-agency Council on the Homeless.
⇒ D.H.S. has not placed a M.A.P. employee at any of the hospitals or clinics to complete the presumptive eligibility process despite promise from the commissioner during a meeting which included hospital representatives on March 13, 2017. This has resulted in unclaimed dollars.
In closing, Mrs. Rivera-O’Reilly told the governor, “As the chair of the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services, I have a duty and responsibility to bring these issues to your attention. I urge you to consider the damaging effects resulting from the inertia that is evident within the department. Our constituents deserve that individuals placed in positions of leadership are held accountable. People entrusted to care for the vulnerable must carry out their functions with compassion and without hidden agendas.”
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