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Concerns raised on medical-referral mileage bill

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THE Senate Committee on Health, Education and Welfare chaired by Senate Floor Leader Justo S. Quitugua did not act on a bill that proposes to create a medical-referral mileage program due to concerns from various government agencies.

Authored by Rep. Joseph Flores, House Bill 21-57 aims to reduce medical-referral costs by creating a CNMI Medical Referral Mileage Program.

According to the bill, all accrued miles earned from any official government business transaction will be transferred to the program. The mileage credits will be provided to the director of medical referral services on a monthly basis or upon request by the director. The mileage credits will be used to help eligible medical referral patients defray their airfare costs.

During the committee meeting on Thursday, its members discussed the concerns of various government agencies regarding H.B. 21-57.

Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig said the use of a mileage credit card “is a form of debt, which can be categorized as unsecured liabilities.” Noting that the CNMI Constitution prohibits public debt for operations, Atalig said that if H.B. 21-57 is enacted, “the CNMI will be at risk of civil liability for the reason that the CNMI government cannot incur debt for operations.”

Attorney General Edward Manibusan, for his part, said the airlines mileage program is administered by the respective airlines. The Commonwealth, the AG said, “cannot dictate whether the miles accrued by employees on government travel may be transferred to a ‘government’ account.”

Manibusan also informed the committee that similar proposals have been introduced in the past Legislatures “and have gone nowhere because of this stumbling block.”

Commonwealth Ports Authority Executive Director Chris Tenorio said H.B. 21-57 “contains ambiguous language that needs to be clarified.” He was referring to the mileage credit card that would be transferred to the program. He said this needs to be defined well because autonomous agencies may seek to make purchases on credit cards that do not provide travel rewards.

It is also unclear whether the legislation requires autonomous agencies to transfer mileage points earned through a credit card’s rewards program or mileage points earned through an air carrier rewards program, Tenorio said.

The Office of the Public Auditor believes the bill is “flawed in several respects.”

Public Auditor Mike Pai said the bill’s reliance on consistent credit card user agreements and mileage programs among competing credit card companies “is unrealistic.”

The bill, he added, “contemplates tracking and coordinating accrued mileage from at least eight different government entities, each with their own separate credit card accounts.”

Pai said “each of these accounts may or may not have an airline mileage program, and those that do will have varying rules to govern mileage accrual and transfer.”

United Airlines was also given the opportunity to comment on the bill.

Its managing director, Samuel Shinohara, said the membership requirement in United Airlines’ Mileage Plus program permits an individual to be the account holder, but not a company, government or corporation. Additionally, he said, the Mileage Plus program does not permit mileage pooling, meaning that multiple individuals are not allowed to contribute miles to another member’s account.

However, Shinohara said, United Airlines would be interested in working with the CNMI government to find solutions for individuals requiring medical attention outside the region. He suggested that the CNMI government partner with Guam-based Ayuda Foundation, which can assist the Commonwealth in facilitating travel for medical needs.

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