Acting Premier Dr Natalio Wheatley said in a statement on Thursday, June 8, that the process has been halted so HOA members can have further deliberations and “consider the views of the public”.
“It is your government’s position that an important matter such as how we care for our former legislators in their golden years and on their passing, should not be shrouded in discord and controversy. To reemphasise the assurance given by the Honourable Premier on this matter, whatever is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands will be the only course of action,” Wheatley said.
His statement follows backlash from the public as well as a statement from members of the Opposition who has sought to distance themselves from the government’s Request For Proposals (RFP) to local health insurers interested in providing the coverage.
In his statement, Dr Wheatley also corroborated his party-mate Sharie de Castro’s account of the matter, and further described the Opposition’s position as “duplicitous” and “deceptive”.
The Acting Premier accused the Opposition of downplaying their involvement “now that they perceive it to be a hot potato – having supported the position all along for supplemental insurance coverage for current and past legislators”.
“What is more important than the political flip-flopping by the Members of the Opposition are the blatant untruths in their statements as regards the chain of events leading up to the issue of the RFP,” he added.
The proposed insurance plan — which has sparked major public backlash — effectively seeks to circumvent the territory’s National Health Insurance scheme and offer legislators health coverage in a number of areas including for cosmetic surgery (in the event of an accident), alcoholism, and substance abuse rehabilitation.
Good day and God’s blessings to the people of the Virgin Islands. As Acting Premier, and consequently the Acting Minister of Finance and Acting Leader of Government Business in the House of Assembly (HOA), I wish to call out the duplicitous conduct and deceptive statements being made by Members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition with respect to the matter of the Request for Proposals (RFP) for health insurance for current and former legislators.
It is clear from the press release issued by the Honourable Leader of the Opposition, dated 7 June, 2021, that most Opposition Members are trying to distance themselves from the issue now that they perceive it to be a hot potato – having supported the position all along for supplemental insurance coverage for current and past legislators. But what is more important than the political flip-flopping by the Members of the Opposition are the blatant untruths in their statements as regards the chain of events leading up to the issue of the RFP.
The facts are that the Members of the Opposition have been involved in this matter from the inception – and this includes the Honourable Member for the 2 nd District, who is a part of the Privileges Committee of the House of Assembly, which first raised the matter.
Given his background in insurance, he was selected as the lead Member on this matter. Secondly, contrary to the assertions of the Leader of the Opposition as well as the Representative for the 2nd District, Honourable Melvin Turnbull was consulted by the Ministry of Finance (MOF) on the contents of the RFP prior to and up to its publication, and the Member raised no concerns throughout the entire process in the nature that he is claiming today.
The Representative for the 2nd District had no major objections to the RFP, although minor changes were suggested, and he did not ask for the RFP to be held back. The matter of insurance for current and former Members of the HOA is a matter being dealt with by the Committee of Privileges, which is chaired by the Honourable Speaker.
The issue was first raised by the current Committee of Privileges a few months after the 2019 General Election. The Member for the 2nd District had indicated to the Committee of Privileges that the matter of insurance was a long outstanding issue, it needed to be dealt with early, and it had his full support as the previous Government was afraid to touch it. Consequently, the sub-Committee of Privileges in 2019 held a series of meetings to iron out all the details for the insurance and agreed to meet with three local insurance companies recommended by the Member for the 2 nd District to advise on what was needed to proceed.
The Member for the 2nd District – as the lead Member – held the preliminary meetings with the three insurance companies and then reported to the Committee, after which the companies made presentations to the Committee. The Member for the 2nd District attended two out of the three meetings with the insurance companies where presentations were made. At no time in 2019, when the Member for the 2nd District first brought the matter to the attention of the Privileges Committee, did he recommend that it needed to be placed on hold, pending a study.
After the Committee decided what was required, the Honourable Speaker gave a report to the whole House on the deliberations, in keeping with Standing Order (SO) 83 (1). Again, the matter of the insurance received support from all Members, including the Honourable Leader of the Opposition and the Member for the 2nd District. There were no objections from the Member for the 2nd District for the matter to wait on any study or amendments to the National Health Insurance (NHI), as the Member for the 2 nd District is now claiming.
After the Privileges Committee completed its internal work, a recommendation was made to the MOF in 2019 for funding. Funding for the insurance was allocated in the 2020 Budget, which was presented to the HOA in November 2019. Due to the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, many projects and programmes were slowed down, and as such the insurance matter was one of those that was put on the back burner due to the need to attend to other matters at the time. The funds allocated in the 2020 Budget were repurposed.
During the 2021 Budget process, which took place in 2020, the issue was raised and Members requested that the funds be returned in the 2021 Budget, to help former Legislators who were ill. The appropriate procedure was followed and funds were allocated in the 2021 Budget for the insurance as formally requested by the Clerk, the Speaker and Members. The Member for the 2nd District was copied in most correspondences to the Premier and the Financial Secretary (FS) regarding the draft Cabinet Paper on the subject, including and as recent as 10 October, 2019.
There continued to be no objections from the Member for the 2nd District along the lines as he is contending today. At an informal meeting towards the end of 2020, the FS recommended that, while he appreciated the Privileges sub-committee’s internal process – of which the Member for the 2nd District was fully involved and took the lead, the FS recommended the request for HOA insurance should go out on public tender. Members agreed with the recommendation of the FS, and hence as the funds were then available, the request was sent to the Public Tender Board, and the Member for the 2nd District was in contact with the officer assigned.
Even then, the FS was reminded that if there were questions that they could have contacted the Member for the 2nd District as the lead Member. The Member for the 2nd District was present at an emergency sub-committee meeting on 12 March, 2021, via Zoom, with the Procurement Officer to discuss the insurance matter, and he did not state any reservations about moving forward.
The matter of the insurance was discussed by Members at an informal meeting on 21 April, 2021, at which the Ag FS and the Procurement Officer were present and where Members asked questions and clarified what should be included in the insurance. All Members at the meeting fully participated including the Opposition Leader Hon. Marlon A. Penn, Opposition Member Hon Julian Fraser and the Government side, and more items were recommended for the package.
The MOF then drafted the RFP and sent a draft tender to the Speaker. The Member for the 2nd District was copied in that email correspondence, which is contrary to the Member’s claims that he did not see the final document before it went out for tender. Once the final tender was sent to the Speaker and copied to the Member for the 2nd District as lead Member, the Speaker asked the Member for the 2nd District to meet with the Procurement Officer, and there is documented confirmation that the Member for the 2nd District did meet with the Procurement Officer and made further changes to the document.
The Member for the 2nd District, throughout all of this has not been a silent observer, nor has he been excluded or absent in any way. The Member for the 2nd District has been front and centre participating actively in carrying the insurance matter forward, particularly in his role as the lead Member in light of his expertise in the subject. No objections or reservations were heard from the Member for the 2nd District until after the matter became the subject of news reports and public commentary, where he now claims that his position was to wait until the NHI amendment and for a study to be done. The only concerns voiced by the Member during the process had to do with including funeral expenses for former or current Members in the coverage. These are the facts. The public should also be advised that on 7 June, 2021, a meeting was convened at the HOA to discuss the facts in this matter and witnesses were called.
At that meeting, it was confirmed by the Procurement Officer that she did not get any impression from the Member for the 2nd District that the tender process was to halted pending any report from the Member for the 2nd District or any other objections as the Member is today claiming to have harboured.
The officer confirmed the Member for the 2nd District’s constant and full participation and that the Member was scheduled to appear on the behalf of the HoA for the pre-tender meeting scheduled for Wednesday, 9 June, 2021. The facts, as established, show that the Honourable Member for the 2nd District is being duplicitous and disingenuous and that the Honourable Leader of the Opposition is complicit with him in trying to mislead the public.
If members of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition had concerns about the Tender documents, the principled action would have been to request a meeting of the Privileges Committee and, subsequently, a meeting of the whole House. This was not done; rather members of the Opposition issued a misleading and inaccurate press release after colluding among themselves. Notwithstanding the political pandering and flip-flopping from the Opposition, and the overall facts as have outlined above, your
Government has taken a decision to halt the tender for the insurance service for current and former HOA Members, so that we can have further deliberations among the Members of the HOA and also to consider the views of the public on the matter.
It is your Government’s position that an important matter such as how we care for our former Legislators in their golden years and on their passing, should not be shrouded in discord and controversy. To re-emphasize the assurance given by the Honourable Premier on this matter, whatever is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands will be the only course of action. In BVILove, I thank you and may God forever bless these beautiful Virgin Islands and her people.