High cost of living, pension system driving  staff shortages at territory's hospitals

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. gavels in a meeting of the Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services on Friday on St. Croix.

The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services learned Friday that the territory’s high cost of living, high deductibles for its pension system and ongoing COVID pandemic are factoring into staff shortages at the territory’s hospitals.

The committee also received updates on construction projects, and approved a new council on responsible fatherhood during Friday’s hearing chaired by Sen. Novelle Francis Jr.

“At Schneider Regional Medical Center, we are currently experiencing the most severe staffing shortage ever faced in our organization,” Tina M. Comissiong, interim chief executive officer, testified.

She noted that currently, the hospital has just 83 of the 149 nurses hired as permanent staff working. She listed the following breakdown:

• Emergency Department has just seven of the required 21 permanent registered nurse positions filled.

• Intensive Care Unit has just seven of 15 required permanent registered nurse positions filled.

• Medical Unit has just 11 of 17 permanent registered nurse positions filled.

• Surgical Unit has just 12 of the 20 permanent registered nurse positions filled.

Douglas Koch, Luis Hospital’s new chief executive officer, echoed Comissiong’s sentiments, noting that competitive short-term contract salaries offered on the mainland coupled with the high cost of the Government Employees’ Retirement System, and cost of living, have created a “perfect storm,” for recruiting and maintaining health care professionals.

The Virgin Islands, however, is not alone as hospitals nationwide are facing similar challenges. According to a 2021 Washington Post Kaiser Family Foundation survey, nearly 30% of health care workers are considering leaving their profession altogether due to work-related stress and the impact of the pandemic.

“We have to take a serious first step with a concrete strategy to develop an attractive recruitment and retention package that convinces nurses and other allied health professionals to work in the territory,” Comissiong said.

COVID response

To combat the surge in COVID-19 cases, Comissiong said the hospital has purchased a fully automated Holistic Panther Fusion System, which is currently the most sensitive/accurate test available in the Virgin Islands.

In addition to the testing system, Schneider has also purchased 40 new central monitoring systems and 25 additional ventilators to support patients with severe or acute respiratory conditions. The purchase brings a total of 48 ventilators at Schneider, she said.

Senators learned that Luis Hospital currently has 40.

In 2021, Comissiong said, Schneider Hospital saw a total of 172 COVID positive admissions, and there were 31 deaths. Of that death total, only two persons had received vaccines. One person had received just the first dose, and the other 28 were unvaccinated.

Christopher Finch, chairman of the V.I. Government Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation, also testified at Friday’s hearing, telling senators that a new section of the Luis Hospital, dubbed JFL North, is slated to open in July, pending the completion of its CMU building.

“The CMU Building is a structure that will house the critically important mechanical systems such as the water distribution equipment, the fire protection systems, the medical gas delivery systems, and the oxygen distribution systems,” Finch said.

Responsible Fatherhood Act

The committee on Friday also approved a bill by Sen. Milton Potter, dubbed the Responsible Fatherhood Act of 2021, to create a Responsible Fatherhood Council.

“A Fatherhood Council will sponsor programs that allow fathers to learn about themselves, and the relationships in their lives, programs that allow fathers to be vulnerable, and to support and learn from one another the key behaviors that are necessary to navigate fatherhood successfully,” said Carlton Stevens.

Stevens is chief executive officer and founder of The Mission Project, a nonprofit on St. Thomas, who testified in support of the proposal.

According to the Kids Count USVI 2019 Data published by the Community Foundation in the Virgin Islands, 58% of children under 18 live in single parent, female-headed households compared to the national average of 23%.

“Fathers are important to children’s well-being. Sensitive, supportive, involved fathers contribute to children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social adjustment,” Michal Rhymer-Browne, V.I. Human Services Department assistant commissioner testified.

“Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, and exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior compared to children who have uninvolved fathers”

According to the bill, a Responsible Fathers Fund would be established as part of the General Fund. The money would be used exclusively to fund the activities of the Council and administered by the commissioner of Human Services.