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St. Croix Receives Vital Funds for Bottled Water Distribution Amid Contamination Crisis

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In a decisive move to address the heavy metal contamination affecting St. Croix’s water supply, the Budget, Appropriations, and Finance Committee has sanctioned a $350,000 allocation under Bill 35-0190. This funding is earmarked for the provision of bottled water to residents grappling with the crisis, offering them some respite from the high costs of clean water.

Championed by Senator Novelle Francis, the bill seeks to mitigate the financial strain on citizens caused by the current pricing of water. Francis emphasized the urgency of delivering financial relief through this measure, citing the exorbitant water prices that the community has been shouldering.

Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and VITEMA Assistant Director Steven DeBlasio Sr. outlined the proposed distribution strategies, highlighting the importance of equitable access. DeBlasio introduced a voucher system as a swift, fair approach for distributing the funds, which would enable families to purchase water to meet their specific needs. This system, along with alternative options like gift or debit cards and direct distribution points, is under consideration, with the voucher system currently favored for its efficiency.

Senator Dwayne DeGraff advocated for a multi-faceted distribution model to ensure comprehensive coverage of the affected population, which includes around 8,000 individuals. He also proposed enlisting the National Guard for their logistical and desalination capabilities.

Despite the urgency, Committee Chair Senator Donna Frett-Gregory voiced concerns about potential bureaucratic hurdles. However, reassurances were provided that existing infrastructure could facilitate rapid voucher distribution, and the state of emergency declared by Governor Albert Bryan Jr. allows for the immediate allocation of resources to address the community’s needs.

Moreover, adjustments to the funding source were suggested, redirecting the financial aid from the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund to the general fund, as the former is not suited for non-capital expenses.

The committee session also provided an opportunity to correct several budgetary discrepancies, including errors in the VI Fire and Emergency Medical Services bill and miscalculations related to the University of the Virgin Islands’ payroll.

With unanimous approval from all present committee members, the bill not only rectifies fiscal oversights but also represents a crucial step toward ensuring the health and well-being of St. Croix’s residents during this ongoing environmental challenge.

The amendments and budget corrections discussed will see the fiscal year 2024 appropriations adjusted to a comprehensive total of $727,578,956, inclusive of the newly approved water distribution fund.


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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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