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Innovative Health Staffing Bill Advances for Virgin Islands Schools

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In a crucial step to bolster healthcare in public schools, the Virgin Islands Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services has unanimously approved a significant bill. Bill No. 35-0194, championed by Senator Kenneth Gittens, seeks to appoint school health technicians in every public school, an initiative crucial for the welfare of students. These technicians will effectively fill the roles typically held by school nurses.

Highlighting a critical gap in the current system, Senator Gittens emphasized the challenge in hiring and retaining registered nurses for schools, citing competitive salaries elsewhere as a key factor. This situation has resulted in a significant shortfall in medical care in schools, with students left without basic medical services like medication administration and first aid.

The issue is pressing, as evidenced by nine current vacancies for school nurses across the territory’s two school districts. This challenge was further underscored by recent resignations of school nurses for better-paying opportunities.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion lauded the bill as timely. Commissioner Encarnacion stressed the importance of having certified school health technicians, especially in the absence of registered nurses. The Department of Health, instrumental in drafting Bill No. 35-0194, believes the benefits of this approach are manifold.

Echoing this support, Deputy Commissioner of Education Victor Somme III linked healthcare directly to student success. He pointed out the Department of Education’s struggle to match the salaries offered by hospitals and private medical entities, making it challenging to attract and retain skilled school nurses.

The proposed bill outlines that the Education Commissioner will appoint a qualified school nurse supervisor in each district to oversee the health technicians. These supervisors would be highly qualified professionals – registered nurses, physician’s assistants, or physicians. The health technicians, potentially LPNs, CNAs, or EMTs, will be subject to clearly defined job descriptions and standard operating procedures, including telehealth provisions, all requiring approval from the Health Commissioner.

While the bill received widespread support, legislators raised questions regarding the attraction of qualified candidates, liability issues, and the efficacy of telehealth services. Currently, school nurses earn a starting salary akin to teachers, around $49,000, as per the American Federation of Teachers’ collective bargaining agreement. Deputy Commissioner Somme assured that salary negotiations are underway, with adjustments contingent on government affordability.

With strong committee endorsement, the bill is now poised for deliberation and potential passage by the full legislative body, marking a significant step towards enhancing healthcare in Virgin Islands schools.

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Governor Bryan Pushes for Urgent Legislation to Address Medicaid Fund Shortfall

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Governor Albert Bryan announced on Monday that the territory has exhausted its funds for the local Medicaid match, prompting Government House to submit draft legislation to the Senate seeking an additional $3 million for this purpose.

Despite the fiscal shortfall, Governor Bryan views the situation as a sign of increased healthcare access. “We’re having so many people access care,” he stated, highlighting that during the pandemic, nearly 40,000 individuals utilized Medicaid for services including braces, dental care, and various medical appointments. Furthermore, eased referral requirements have facilitated access to specialty care. “Before, you had to go to East End or Frederiksted Health Center for a referral; now, a regular doctor can refer you,” Bryan explained.

These expanded services and simplified processes have rapidly depleted the Medicaid matching funds. However, Governor Bryan does not foresee this as a recurring issue, predicting stabilization next year. He noted that the V.I. Department of Human Services has already reduced some services, which has led to a decrease in Medicaid enrollment.

The proposed $3 million allocation remains critical for Virgin Islanders. Governor Bryan emphasized its importance, pointing to the recent U.S. Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) Program health fair, where medics served over 2,500 people seeking no-cost healthcare services. Although 6,000 people applied, many were turned away due to limited resources. The governor stressed that healthcare costs for uninsured residents ultimately fall on the territory, whether through Medicaid or hospital services.

The effort to secure adequate Medicaid funding is ongoing. In 2019, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett successfully obtained an additional $252 million for the territory in a fiscal year 2020 spending bill, raising the federal match from 55% to 83%. This increased match rate, initially set to expire in 2021, has been made permanent, ensuring the territory receives the highest possible Medicaid match in the U.S.

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Measles Outbreaks Prompt Vaccination Drive in U.S. Virgin Islands

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As measles outbreaks rise across the United States and the Caribbean, U.S. Virgin Islands Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion is urging parents to prioritize their children’s vaccination schedules.

Commissioner Encarnacion voiced her concerns this week about the alarmingly low vaccination rates among children in the territory, emphasizing the imminent threat of measles. “We are very concerned about the low childhood vaccine rate in the Territory, especially with measles threatening the US,” she said. Currently, only 60 percent of USVI children are vaccinated, a situation worsened by an increasing number of parents seeking vaccination exemptions.

The urgency is underscored by the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control, which reports weekly on measles outbreaks. As of June 6, 2024, there have been 151 measles cases across 22 jurisdictions, including Arizona, California, Florida, and New York, with over half resulting in hospitalizations.

The infectiousness of measles is a significant concern for the V.I. Department of Health. “While 151 may seem like a low number, it is alarming because one person can infect nine to ten others,” Encarnacion explained. She also highlighted the risk of the disease spreading to the USVI and neighboring regions, noting that the Turks and Caicos Islands reported their first measles cases since 1991 this past May.

In response, the Department of Health launched the “Be Wise, Immunize” campaign earlier this year. This initiative aims to educate parents about the vital importance of vaccinations, stressing that immunization is the best defense against diseases like measles both in childhood and later in life.

The primary defense against measles is the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which provides long-lasting protection against all strains of the virus. Measles can lead to severe health complications, particularly in children under five, including pneumonia and encephalitis.

Measles is highly contagious, spreading through the air via coughs or sneezes from infected individuals. It remains active in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours. Symptoms typically appear seven to 14 days after exposure and include high fever, cough, runny nose, red watery eyes, and a characteristic rash.

Although declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, measles continues to persist globally and is often brought into the U.S. by unvaccinated travelers.

The VI Department of Health is urging parents to ensure their children are vaccinated and provides resources for scheduling immunization appointments at www.doh.vi.gov/immunization.

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Douglas Koch to Lead Kearney Regional Medical Center in Nebraska

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Just a day after announcing his resignation from the Juan F. Luis Hospital (JFL) on St. Croix, CEO Douglas Koch has been named the new CEO of Kearney Regional Medical Center in Nebraska. He will assume his new role on August 5, according to a report from KSNB Local 4.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Koch cited a desire to return to the Midwest to be closer to his family. His departure has been a significant loss for local health officials, with JFL Board Chair Chris Finch expressing disappointment. Mr. Finch, who also chairs the Territorial Hospital Board of Directors, highlighted Mr. Koch’s exemplary service, noting that he had recently received an excellent personnel evaluation from board members.

Koch’s new role in Nebraska is eagerly anticipated by his future colleagues. John Woodrich, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Bryan Health, which owns Kearney Regional, praised Koch’s midwestern roots, education, and extensive operational experience as ideal for the position. “Doug’s commitment to community health and his leadership skills will be a tremendous asset to Kearney Regional Medical Center,” said Woodrich.

Before his tenure in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Koch held leadership positions in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. At Kearney Regional, he will oversee the expansion of inpatient facilities and the construction of a cancer center, similar to his work with JFL’s transition to a temporary modular structure. Woodrich emphasized Koch’s ability to help communities thrive, stating, “He will be an outstanding leader for Kearney Regional Medical Center.”

As Mr. Koch prepares to embark on his new journey, JFL officials now face the task of finding a new CEO to lead the hospital forward.

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