June 2, 2001 – The Senate Health and Hospitals Committee was told Friday that the territory's mental health care is in crisis, and authorities are still tracking the trail of the elusive $1 surcharge tacked onto monthly telephone bills since April of last year.
The committee heard from officials of Innovative Telephone, V.I. Fire Services and the mental health services at Roy L. Schneider Hospital.
According to a report in The Avis, Dr. Leighmin Lu, head of the Schneider neuropsychiatry department, said the hospital cannot meet the community's mental health needs. Its acute care facility, the Behavioral Health Unit, has 22 beds, and the long-term care unit has 30. Lu said because the long-term care unit is "constantly full, overwhelmed," the department has been unable to transfer patients to long-term care for almost two years.
Lu said the Behavioral Health Unit sees an average of 250 patients each year, in addition to nearly 150 others admitted to the hospital after suicide attempts or for alcohol or drug detoxification.
The crisis also extends to mental health care in the Bureau of Corrections. The Avis said Attorney General Iver Stridiron expressed concern about problems faced by the Justice Department in caring for mentally ill inmates. Stridiron said criminal defendants who are found not guilty by reason of insanity or mental incompetence must by law be sent to a certified forensic unit for care, and there is no such unit in the territory.
It costs $1,600 per day to house an inmate in the certified forensic unit of a Virginia facility, as opposed to $66 per day for inmates in regular confinement, Stridiron said. He said Corrections is applying for a grant to create a certified forensic unit at the Golden Grove facility on St. Croix.
Testimony the panel heard about the whereabouts of the emergency surcharge was inconclusive. Samuel Ebbesen, Innovative Telephone president, said Innovative has kept its part of the bargain, handing the surcharge revenues over to the government in a timely manner, according to The Avis. "We've taken this seriously, and it's all above board," Ebbesen said.
The $1 surcharge on phone bills was legislated to raise funds for the territory's 911 emergency response service and other vital emergency services. Sen. Douglas Canton, the committee chair, asked witnesses about the distribution of the emergency funds. However, he was unable to get answers to some questions because Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull failed to appear at the hearing or to send a representative.
Fire Services has been able to access its funds from the surcharge revenues, Merwin Potter, St. Thomas-St. John fire chief, said. "In the beginning, accessing these funds was an uphill battle with the Department of Finance," he said, but "payments to our vendors are now on schedule."
Merwin said Fire Services is entitled to $138,662 so far this fiscal year. "Thus far, we have expended approximately $133,522," he added.
At a hearing on the same subject before the Government Operations, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee on March 28, Office of Management and Budget director Ira Mills told senators the government had received $608,751 from the startup of the surcharge in April of 2000 through February of this year.
Also at that hearing, Turnbull testified that less than a third of the amount had been spent by the agencies designated to receive the funds and that only the 911 system had used up its full allocation as of that date. The Police Department had not used any of its money, she said.
Dr. Herbert Saunders, director of Emergency Medical Services, said then that he was having trouble accessing the funds to which EMS was entitled because the bill creating the surcharge designated the hospitals as recipient, whereas the Health Department oversees his service. Until a reorganization a few years ago, the territory's hospitals were under Health.
Canton said Friday that his committee will meet again to continue pursuing the matter.


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