Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., is working on a bill that would give St. Croix something it desperately needs….a behavioral health care facility. The lawmaker is the primary sponsor, and one of four senators working to move bill number 32-0247, an act that would designate three million dollars to build a facility to help people with mental illness, forward.
Senator Francis says this issue is a priority for he and his colleagues, as well as the community.
“This is not the end all or a cure all, but rather a start to be able to address the problems that we’re experiencing,” said Sen. Francis.
The inpatient psychiatric unit at the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center closed in 2012. Since that time, St. Croix has been without a facility to treat and service individuals with severe mental illness.
Both of the Virgin Islands Territory’s local hospitals, one on St. Thomas and the other on St. Croix, only provide short-term intake options for people who need acute mental health care.
“I have a son who came back from Iraq and started to develop PTSD, and then it turned into schizophrenia,” she said. “I’ve had my fight with the VA to get him services and asking for help to try to figure out how to cope with him and how to deal with him and there was nobody to tell me,” she said. “The psych ward is the first line of defense for family members when they’re family member is having an episode…. you should be able to call the police, take them to the hospital and have them go into the psych ward to be evaluated and stabilized. We don’t have that anymore.”
According to statistics from the Virgin Islands Department of Health(DOH), there are approximately 700 people registered with the department to receive behavioral health outpatient services. Individuals with severe mental illnesses who require more long-term care, are sometimes sent off-island to receive that care.
According to the DOH, it costs the Territory millions every year to house these patients in facilities that are located in California, Georgia, Puerto Rico and Texas. Senators expect that this measure would be a cost-saving one, in addition to a benefit to those persons in need of behavioral care.
“We spend millions of dollars in behavioral services throughout Government…the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services…. and a lot of that money could be spent to provide the facilities here,” said Francis.
The proposed legislation designates a plot in Estate Anna’s Hope to develop the facility, and according to the bill, would provide:
- Outpatient services
- 24-Hour a day emergency care services;
- Day treatment or other partial hospitalization services;
- Compliance with all local and federal licensing and accreditation standards to meet individual patient needs for children, adolescents and adults;
- Compliance with the critical needs and recommendations identified in the Five Year Mental Health plan.
This proposal is not the first one offered to fix the broken mental health system. Two pieces of legislation offered by Senator Nereida O’Reilly in 2016 sought to increase the time limits for both emergency and involuntary commitment. However, during a 2016 Senate hearing, health officials argued that the bill which was unfunded, would cost the Territory more money, and stress the already struggling hospitals. That bill also offered funding to rebuild the inpatient psychiatric unit at Luis Hospital.
In order to fund the three million dollars earmarked for the new facility, Senator Francis’ new proposal repeals sections of two previous laws to redirect monies that appropriated $2 million to build a new senior home care facility for the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged, and $1 million to rebuild the acute inpatient unit at Luis Hospital. According to Francis, alternate options have been provided to complete those projects.
When asked, the senator said he plans to include parameters within the bill that would establish a timeline for building the facility, to move it forward with the support of his colleagues, and local stakeholders.
“In this setup, we don’t want it to just be about medicating…we really want to see that there’s a holistic approach to this, and be able to get these individuals back on their feet and able to help themselves,” said Francis.
Senators Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Kurt Vialet joined Sen. Francis as sponsors on the bill, and Sen. Janelle Sarauw signed on as a co-sponsor.
For more information on the proposed legislation, please visit the Legislature of the Virgin Islands’ website at http://www.legvi.org, or contact Sen. Francis’ office at (340) 773-2424.