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Special Session reconvenes today after immediate recess

fili@samoanews.com

Lawmakers reconvene this morning for day two of the Special Session of the 32nd Legislature after a two-week mid session recess — there is no word on whether the governor and the Fono met regarding the bills proposed for the special session or if he will address the Fono this morning.

The Fono convened on Mar.12 for the special session called by Gov. Togiola Tulafono to review and approve three issues, which are all funding measures for the LBJ Medical Center.

However, less then 30-minutes after each chamber convened, the Fono went into a mid session recess with Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie telling senators that the Fono will be in recess for two weeks while the Fono leadership seeks a meeting with the governor.

Items to be considered during the special session are a measure appropriating $10 million to fund the off island medical referral program at the hospital, and a proposal authorizing the American Samoa Government to enter into a loan agreement with the American Samoa Government Employees’ Retirement Fund in the amount of $8 million for the hospital to fund health care needs of the Territory.

Both proposals — funded with hikes in excise taxes for alcohol, beer, tobacco and cigarettes; a hike in business license fees; a $2,000 corporate tax; and a new 4% wage tax — were submitted in the 3rd session.

(Samoa News notes, if passed, this will bring the wage tax up to 10%.)

Also on the special session agenda is the bill seeking to amend current law dealing with LBJ by dissolving the hospital authority, its board of directors and the chief executive officer and return the hospital back to the government under the jurisdiction of the Health Department.

Reports last Friday from the Fono state that the governor was to address lawmakers this morning but there was no confirmation as of yesterday from the governor’s office that this will happen today.

Gov. Togiola Tulafono did mention the special session on his weekend radio program but made no mention of addressing the Fono. The governor also said that the financial situation faced with LBJ is very serious and the reason he decided to remain on island, instead of attending today’s funeral service of the late King George Tupou V in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.

Togiola says there must be sufficient and permanent funding for the hospital because every time ASG revenue collection drops, the government subsidy to LBJ is the last matter to deal with.

(When ASG revenues dropped in FY 2011, close to $3 million in ASG subsidies were not paid to LBJ.)

In other words, when government revenue collections are down, funding allocation for semi autonomous agencies, such as LBJ, are the first to be cut or reduced because the government needs to have sufficient funds in its coffer to support and provide its services, said Togiola and points out that this is a problem that will never go away, whether he is governor or another person is the chief executive.

Togiola said he had hoped the Fono would have addressed these money bills for the hospital during the 3rd regular session, but that didn’t occur and this is the reason he called the special session.

The governor then spoke at length about the importance of having sufficient and adequate funding for the off-island referral program and that he wrote to the Fono leadership last Friday urging lawmakers to approve the administration’s $10 million proposal that would providing sufficient and permanent funding for this program.

He defended proposing this bill, saying it will greatly assist in American Samoa’s difficult effort to recruit for the hospital specialized physicians because it will take a very long time before the hospital is able to secure such physicians.

Togiola said the issue of difficulty n recruiting specialized physicians is also faced with medical centers off island and this means American Samoa is competing with other U.S. hospitals.

Without specialized physicians at LBJ, Togiola said it’s more affordable for the territory at this time to fund the referral program, while the government is working on a program to resolve this shortage.

Togiola also confirmed what LBJ officials have said for many years: even if American Samoa can identify and then try to recruit specialized physicians, the territory just cannot afford the high salaries demanded by such doctors.

For example, Togiola says local doctors are paid around $90,000 annually but off-island physicians want $200,000 a year, with housing allowances and other benefits.

However, by sending local patients off island, this means residents can be treated by specialized physicians, if needed and this is much more affordable for American Samoa at this time, he said.

The governor added that this $10 million can be used as matching for Medicaid fund and Medicaid can provide additional federal funding for other hospital purposes — such as medication and hospital improvements.



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