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Governor pays CUC so it won’t disconnect CHCC again

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THE Office of the Governor on Wednesday paid $50,000 to the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. so it would not disconnect the power supply to the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.

“The governor wants to resolve the situation,” CUC Executive Director Gary Camacho said. “He has a lot of respect for both agencies, and obviously, the well-being of everyone on island.”

He said CUC crew members were ready to disconnect the hospital from its power grid for six hours starting at noon Wednesday, but the governor informed him about the payment.

“We appreciate the fact that the governor came to help out the hospital again,” Camacho said.

On Tuesday, CUC disconnected the power supply to CHCC for six hours after CHCC paid only $50,000 of the $250,000 that CUC demanded.

Of that amount, the governor had already provided $150,000, and CHCC was supposed to remit $100,000.

CHCC, however, said it only agreed to pay $50,000.

CUC then disconnected CHCC from the power grid from 12 noon to 6 p.m. on Tuesday. The hospital ran its backup generator for the duration of power disconnection.

Camacho said CUC is now looking forward to CHCC’s next payment due in October.

If no payment is made next month, the public utility will continue disconnecting the hospital from the power grid each day for six hours.

CUC said CHCC owes over $34 million in unpaid utility bills.

Covid-19 tests

In a separate interview, CHCC Chief Executive Officer Esther Muna said they may consider suspending the airport screening and community-based testing for Covid-19 if CUC continues to disconnect the hospital from the power grid every day.

Muna said they will have to focus on serving patients at the hospital.

If airport screening is suspended, she said newly arrived  passengers will have to be quarantined for 14 to 21 days.

In a statement to the community, CHCC said it is “committed to [the] continuity of providing healthcare services during this unfortunate time of losing CUC power.”

CHCC said it is asking  patients to maintain their appointment schedule. Walk-in appointments are still welcomed and no one will be turned away, CHCC added.

On Tuesday, Muna said they had to cancel all surgeries from 12 noon to 6 p.m. Laboratory operations at the hospital could be affected, too, she added.

On a daily basis, she said, the CHCC laboratory has been processing over a hundred specimens for Covid-19 and other tests.

The Covid-19 specimens are from passengers arriving on Saipan. They have to be tested upon arrival and on the fifth day of their arrival.

‘Very alarming’

In a letter on Wednesday, Sen. Paul A. Manglona asked the governor to immediately address the “financial fiasco” at CHCC and CUC.

“It is very alarming that during this unprecedented crisis, the first victim from our government financial belt-tightening is our hospital. After your assurance two days ago that there will be no reduction in power supply to CHCC, CUC disconnected the hospital’s power [on Tuesday] afternoon due to its unpaid utility bills. While I understand that CUC does not have the luxury or financial ability to continue supplying more than $400,000 per month worth of electricity to CHCC, cutting power supply to CHCC in the middle of a pandemic is frightening to say the least.”

Manglona said the hospital will be running on emergency generator power for six hours daily until a financial settlement agreement is reached between CHCC and CUC.

This emergency operation, he said, “is dangerous as we are potentially putting our patients at risk because our emergency generator power capability and emergency fuel supply are being significantly compromised.”

“Additionally, power quality disturbances such as surges, spikes, sags, or brownouts can cripple medical equipment and place the care of patients at serious risk,” Manglona said.

“Governor, this financial fiasco with CHCC and CUC must be addressed immediately with your input and total support. We cannot leave it up to the two corporations to settle their long-running dispute. As we all know, for many years the fiscal budgets allotted to CHCC are not realistic figures on the true cost of hospital operations, which must be factored into the budget formula. There is no doubt that our practice of omitting or knowingly under-budgeting known, unavoidable costs from the hospital budget including inter-island medical referral services, Medicaid-matching requirements, CHCC indigent care costs, and government utilities has been the main reason for CHCC’s past due utility billing,” he told the governor.

Manglona, the CNMI’s longest-serving legislator, said he is confident that “by working together with CUC and CHCC, and making this a top priority, we can put our hospital and healthcare services as well as our utility corporation back on a sustainable fiscal course and have a more orderly, all-encompassing readjustment or belt-tightening during this pandemic.”

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