CNMI HEALTH DEPARTMENT UNDER GUN

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Lawmakers subpoena documents, top officials

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 9, 2009) – The House Health, Education and Welfare Committee has posed at least 232 written questions to the Department of Public Health, and subpoenaed dozens of documents and at least six top officials as part of an ongoing investigation into DPH's management, billing and collections, hiring of doctors, customer service, and handling of a bloated hemodialysis project, among other things.

Committee chair Rep. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) subpoenaed acting Health Secretary Pete T. Untalan and at least five other officials to appear and testify before the panel on Oct. 14, 15, and 16.

"Your failure to appear before the committee and provide the documents requested will subject you to punishment for contempt pursuant to 1 CMC 1306," Torres told Untalan in an Oct. 2 letter.

Torres's committee gave DPH up to today to deliver the documents requested and the responses to the written questions posed.

As of last night, DPH has yet to submit responses or turn in requested documents.

When asked for comment yesterday, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's press secretary, Charles Reyes, said the governor urges DPH's full compliance with a lawful legislative subpoena.

DPH is now working to comply with the legislative subpoena, Reyes said.

"We hope to fully satisfy all of their public health concerns and look forward to working closely and collaboratively with the Legislature to improve the state of healthcare for all CNMI residents," he added.

Reyes also said that Joseph Kevin Villagomez remains as secretary of DPH but is still on leave. Untalan has been serving in an acting capacity as health secretary for months now. Untalan is the deputy secretary for hospital administration.

The House committee will hold an oversight hearing on DPH on Oct. 14 at 2pm and on Oct. 15 and 16 at 9am.

Untalan is also required to appear at the hearing with at least five other DPH officials, including the hospital medical director, the nursing director, the financial officer, the human resources director, and the medical referral officer. The acting health secretary may also be accompanied by a counsel at the hearing.

DPH has components that include the Commonwealth Health Center, the Division of Public Health, and the Community Guidance Center.

The 232 questions pertain to the House committee's investigation into 15 areas of concern. These include CHC management, medical supplies and equipment, hospital billing and collections, human resources/recruitment, medical records, customer service, medical referral, Emergency Room Department, Surgery Department, Hemodialysis Unit, Intensive Care Unit, Radiology/Laboratory Department, Nursing Department, Psychiatric Unit/Psychiatrist, and the Tinian and Rota Health Centers.

In the area of CHC management, for example, the committee asked 16 questions, including whether there's political interference with the management of DPH. It also pointed to allegations of frequent absences of top hospital management officials.

"Is this true? Explain," the committee asked.

It also asked for the amount paid by DPH to a U.S.-based headhunter, and for other recruitments.

One of the questions pertaining to recruitment asked DPH for a list of all employees that have left their job at CHC either voluntarily or involuntarily, including doctors and nurses whose contracts were not renewed since January 2006 to present. "Please indicate the date of hire, date of separation and the reason for separation," the committee said.

Among the medical supplies and equipment questions was, "Are there ample medical supplies and equipment that are readily available when needed?"

"How much is currently uncollected by the hospital for services rendered? How is the hospital handling this?" the committee asked.

In another set of inquiry, the panel said: "Numerous complaints have been made about staff being non-responsive or extremely slow in retrieving charts and forwarding them to the appropriate ward. Please explain."

"The new hemodialysis unit is not open. Why is this so?" DPH also asked.

Among the documents that the House committee subpoenaed are copies of letters of doctors and nurses' resignation; copies of all contracts pertaining to medical referral, including Kaiser Permanente, which is a consultant in the Philippines, headhunters, travel agencies and physician fees outside CHC, and "copies of all original billing and negotiated billing from Kaiser Permanente;" copies of correspondences between the headhunter and CHC on the hiring of doctors; and copies of all contracts involving the hemodialysis unit.

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