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LBJ: Still stalemate after Fono conference committee ends

fili@samoanews.com

Senate conferees were adamant that a $3 million appropriation bill for the LBJ Medical Center be a direct payment, because the hospital is in a “critical financial crisis”, but House conferees refused to back down, as they argued that this money should be a loan from the funding source, the ASG Workmen’s Compensation Account, which has a balance of $4.5 million.

With both sides unable to reach a consensus during yesterday’s conference committee on the final language of the bill, Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie called for a full conference committee of the whole from both chambers to convene at 9 a.m. today.

(Samoa News points out the full conference committee convenes at the same time the LBJ medical staff will begin its peaceful march from Utulei Beach park to the EOB, to highlight the dire straits the hospital is in, because the government is not paying the medical center’s subsidy in a timely manner.)

This means that all members of both the Senate and House are now conferees to attend the conference committee hearing.

COMMITTEE DEBATE

At yesterday’s conference committee, each side was represented by six members. At the start of the hearing, Rep. Vailiuama S. Leasiolagi, chairman of the House Budget and Appropriations Committee recalled that the House had already passed two Senate bills for the hospital ($253,000 and $1.6 million - with $800,000 each for the LBJ and FEMA matching).

He also said that the House has also passed the $3 million (S.B. 32-16) except that the House made changes — in which the $3 million is a loan to be repaid with the new 2% wage tax — also another Senate bill, which was submitted separately, but the House included together in S.B 32-26.

Vailiuama then went on to outline estimated dollars to be collected from the wage tax, which he said would be $4 million annually and he claimed that it would not take very long to repay this loan. He estimated that it would be repaid before the end of this year.

He said all the information provided to the Senate as well as amendments made in the bill followed thorough review, research and discussion by the House with the main goal to help the hospital.

Sen. Velega Savali Jr. responded that the $1.6 million bill may not end up anywhere, because the Treasurer has stated that this amount — which is supposed to be the FY 2011 surplus — is only on paper but not actual money.  He said this is the same case for the $253,000 appropriation.

He argued that the Senate sought out a solid funding source, which was identified by the Legislative Financial Office as the Workmen’s Compensation Account with $4.5 million “ready to disburse”.  He also pointed out that this $3 million was the final bill expedited by the Senate, after thorough research, in order to get “available cash” to the hospital, whose financial situation is “very critical”.

House Vice Speaker Talia Fa’afetai Iaulualo made it clear to the Senate conferees that the House also wants to help with LBJ’s financial needs and the reason the House passed the Senate funding measures.

However, he said the only changes made by the House were amendments to the $3 million bill in which this money is to be repaid, and once it’s paid off with the 2% wage tax, then 50% goes to LBJ off-island referral program and 50% to ASG — which is also in need of additional funding. He said he is confident that this $3 million bill with House amendments will be approved by the governor.

Iaulualo also reminded senators that there is still no clear picture as to the actual financial status of the hospital.

However, Senate conferees insisted that $3 million not be a loan, because it will take time to get the paper work done, while a direct payment will ensure this money is available to the hospital right away.

Anything else dealing with the repayment of the loan, and other issues concerning the hospital’s financial status, can be addressed at a later time, said Sen. Lualemaga Faoa.

This statement was also supported by Sen. Alo Dr. Paul Stevenson who agreed that a thorough review of the LBJ finances is needed — but also said that this can be done at a later time. “Right now, the hospital needs money and this $3 million is available,” said Alo.

Sen. Fuata Dr. T. Iatala and Velega also stated that the hospital is moving to lay off between 200 and 300 workers and this is another serious issue that requires urgent attention of the Fono through emergency funding, to be provided as soon as possible.

Velega also recalled that the hospital didn’t get $2.8 million in subsidies for FY 2011 and in FY 2012 it was supposed to get $1.7 million between October and January, but only $762,000 was paid out. 

House conferees were not swayed and maintained their stand on their amendments. Alo — who chaired the hearing — said it appears there will be no consensus reached with both sides maintaining their stand and therefore called the hearing to a close.



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