Senators are skeptical that Luis Hospital’s current leadership has the team in place to prevent them from making the same mistakes as their predecessors.
“The running of that hospital system is a very hard job,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet during Friday’s meeting of the Legislature’s Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee on St. Croix. “I applaud the team for doing their best to make sure we have health care on St. Croix on a regular basis. But when you add construction onto your plate, it is like we are setting you to not do a good job. You have so much on your plate.”
If all goes well from this point forward, and all hasn’t gone well on the project, it could be April 2022 — nearly four years after hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the territory — that the temporary hospital called JFL North is ready to open and accept patients. Only then will Luis Hospital close and be demolished to make way for a new $200 million facility.
The hospital’s Interim Chief Executive Dyma Williams explained that the delay can be blamed on a 2018 decision to split the design/build contract for the $46 million temporary hospital from the purchase of the furniture, fixtures and equipment needed to run the facility. The decision would require the project to go through a second federal approval process to obtain an additional $27 million, Williams said.
But, while JFL North is now filled with medical equipment, chairs and beds, it still lacks the needed infrastructure to turn on the hot water, let alone get oxygen to patients.
After the hospital had already extended special gas lines to the V.I. Cardiac Center with the intention to further extend utilities to JFL North, a key inspector found the plan insufficient and vetoed it, Williams said.
“This would be equivalent to building the shell of a 727 jetliner with no seats, or engines and most critically a cockpit with no master control panel that manages the functionality of the plane while we anxiously wait to board,” Williams said.
A request for proposals for a temporary mechanical building is now due in days. Williams likened the mechanical space to the brain of the JFL North and “although JFL North is called a temporary hospital facility — or modular by some — JFL North has all the provisions of a state-of-the-art general hospital building that is certifiable by CMS,” Williams said.
While the hospital’s team has already corrected several deficiencies — including changes to make the ambulance ramp and emergency department entrance comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and are relocating propane tanks which are too close to the facility — senators repeatedly expressed doubt that the team has the right people on the ground to keep them from making more mistakes.
With two engineers having quit, senators asked why the hospital is looking to hire another outside advisor, and not a new staff engineer.
“When we go with individual engineers — because there are so many other projects within the territory, there are so many other opportunities — we tend not to hold on to engineers for a very long period of time,” Williams said.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw challenged the answer, noting one of the engineers had left because of the “hierarchical structure of how things were being done.”
“I do not believe anyone without a deep background in construction can actually perform when it comes to a new hospital,” Vialet said. “You need an engineer, you need a background to assist in avoiding the issues I saw here and in the testimony. Especially with the brain of the operation ... the mechanical room with all the different equipment.”
“We are having a $300 million conversation ... and we are utilizing external forces to tell us if we are moving in the right direction. You don’t see anything wrong with that,” asked Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory.
Williams, however, held on throughout the questioning that the right course of action for the hospital at this point is hiring an outside engineering firm with expertise in health care. And, while questioned repeatedly by senators on the issue, Williams would not place the blame on any one individual or group of individuals, for the repeated delays at JFL North.
“If we are going to be successful with rebuilding … we are going to have to change the narrative,” Frett-Gregory said. “Whether or not you like it, or your team likes it.”
“I find that direction we are going in right now... is not working. The feedback we are getting is not good. I think it is important that we put it out that we are aware it is not good,” Frett-Gregory said.
“April of 2022 is unacceptable, we can not, should not and will not accept April 2022 for the opening of JFL,” Vialet said. “I’m telling you, this community deserves better than that. Even if we have to take night and make day, we cannot wait until April 2022 for us to open JFL North.”