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Immigration issues blamed for off-island doctor shortages

[SN file photo]

LBJ Medical Center officials have acknowledged the long waiting time in the Emergency Room by members of the public, especially when there is an occurrence of communicable diseases.

They also acknowledged that the only hospital in the territory continues to face a shortage of medical professionals — physicians and nurses.

LBJ medical director Dr. Iotamo Saleapaga, chief executive officer Faumuina John Faumuina, and board chairman Iulogologo Joseph Pereira appeared yesterday before a Senate Committee of the Whole to answer questions on many health issues. Among them were concerns raised last week in the Senate over the long waiting time at the ER, up to five hours or more. These are the same complaints that have been voiced from the public.

Saleapaga acknowledged the long waiting time at the ER, saying that any time there is an occurrence of communicable diseases on island — such as Dengue, Zika, or chickenpox — that's when many people go to the ER for medical assistance. He said enough patients flock to the ER during these outbreaks to fill up both the inside and outside of the ER, but added that there are certain times when the ER is not crowded at all. He said the long wait in the ER is not a year-round thing.

According to Faumuina, the hospital continues to face a shortage of medical professionals, like physicians, and LBJ wasn't able to recruit from off island to help with the shortage due to issues with the Immigration Board.

However, those issues have been resolved after contact was made with the governor and the Immigration Board, he said, adding that LBJ will now start working on recruiting from off island — again.

When asked by the committee, Iulogologo confirmed that there were some issues with the Immigration Board that prevented the hospital from recruiting off island, but those have been resolved.

Specific details on the Immigration Board issues were not revealed.

Faumuina offered his apologies to senators and the public, and added that recruiting doctors is not easy, especially when there are no Samoans in this professional field for LBJ to tap in to for recruitment and therefore, "we depend on off island” physicians, he said.

He revealed that contact has been made with Elder O. Vincent Haleck, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as there are Mormon physicians who have retired and can volunteer in American Samoa — about 3 to 5 doctors can volunteer.

The LBJ CEO said LBJ is working on whether it can afford housing and car allowances for them, all of whom are US doctors but have retired in accordance with the retirement age of physicians in the US.

He added that there is also a shortage of nurses at LBJ, and there is a need for ASG to help with the nursing program at the American Samoa Community College, as it is a source of recruitment for both LBJ and the Health Department.