Commonwealth Health Center: Symptoms of a Sick Government

August 15, 2012

The Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation's problems are symptomatic of the disease that has spread throughout the entire CNMI government. There are not enough funds to pay essential employees, buy critical supplies, keep facilities maintained or to meet the basic requirements of the local and federal regulating standards and policies. There is a lot of finger pointing among officials, but there appear to be no workable short or long-term goals or plans by any of them. The crisis at the CHC is also looming at the Public School System, the Northern Marianas College, the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety and the Retirement Fund.

The only time the CHC or any other CNMI institution or agency seems to get the required attention of the local officials is when a catastrophic crisis occurs. Even then, an overwhelming majority of the citizens act as shocked bystanders, doing nothing to demand reform. They discuss the government failures, the corruption, the illegalities, and the unethical behavior of officials, but they take no action. They lament the the fact that murders go unsolved, lights go out, schools struggle to meet accreditation, and public clinics are closed, but they fail to rise up.

Once again the crisis at the CHC is in the spotlight. For years foreign nurses have complained that they were not being paid. The problem was never solved probably because wage theft in the CNMI is accepted if the victims are foreigners.  Contractual  benefits such as housing benefits have gone unpaid for over half a year. No one at CHS received a paycheck on payday August 10th. On Tuesday, July 14th, the CHC essentially closed, as it was understaffed, even at the emergency room. There is now talk of closing the hospital. Then what people? Pray that you never get sick? Watch people die around you?

The elected officials decided that the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation would fail when they approved a budget that ensured its death. There was no way that an institution that requires $2 million a month in payroll could survive on "seed money" of $5 million. None. The officials all knew that the billing system was faulty at best, that funds were misused and it was impossible for the institution to fund itself. Were they hoping that if it got bad enough then the federal government would cure all with an injection of federal funds?

The local officials refuse to do anything to raise critically needed revenue. Vital public services, including the health system, the public school system and the utilities system, etc. that are dependent on local revenue are grossly underfunded and cannot adequately provide essential services. The lawmakers have failed to institute a sales tax, a property tax or make any concerted effort to raise revenue, even as the CNMI crumbles around them. They are merely taking money from one already withering account to pay another and only when a crisis threatens total collapse –only when the hospital is set to close, only when CUC cuts lights at public offices, only when the Retirement Funds attempts to declare bankruptcy. It has reached the point where there are no more funds to shift and no more accounts to raid. It may be too late for public outrage now.