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Travel agencies stop issuing tickets for patients

By Moneth Deposa SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 29, 2010) - Medical referral patients who need treatment outside the Commonwealth may not have that option for now after travel agencies stopped issuing them airline tickets due to the government’s nonpayment of arrears owed, now amounting to US$180,000.

Department of Public Health Secretary Joseph Kevin Villagomez confirmed yesterday with the Saipan Tribune that travel agencies suspended the processing of travel documents for off-island medical referrals beginning Wednesday.

So far, five to 10 medical referral cases have been affected, all of which are for follow-ups, he said.

The CNMI government owes Wings Travel, Pacific Sky, and World Tour and Travel a total of about US$180,000, Villagomez said, and payment for each vendor has been delayed by over a month.

"Right now, we’re working with the Department of Finance to pay the travel agencies. They haven’t been paid for awhile so they stopped the processing of medical referral travels for now until they collected the US$180,000 obligation," he said.

Villagomez met with the Medical Referral Office yesterday to work out a payment plan with the Finance Department.

Although Finance is doing its best to settle the obligation, Villagomez said there is no concrete date as to when the payment will be released to vendors.

"They [Medical Referral Office] are communicating with Finance but I don’t know exactly when the checks will be released. But it’s just a matter of processing and because of the cash flow problem of the government," he said.

"If they get paid tomorrow, the agencies will process again these referrals," he added.

Payments for the medical referral vendors are separate from the allotment or budget of the Department of Public Health, Villagomez said, because the money comes from other funding sources.

Since Wednesday, only one travel agency allowed medical referral trips to Guam while a total ban was placed on trips to the Philippines and Honolulu. The two other travel agencies, Villagomez said, implemented a complete ban on all these destinations.

He admitted that "emergency cases" are the biggest worry they have for now.

"The affected cases are for follow-ups and there is no immediate repercussion if we will delay it by a day or a week but if we have emergency cases tomorrow, what course do we have?" he said.

If and when that happens, the department will have to plead with these travel agencies to at least temporarily lift the travel ban, he said.

"The thing here is we will pay the obligation and it’s just a matter of paying it in a timely fashion," he said.

DPH spent US$16.3 million in the last four fiscal years, ending in fiscal year 2009, to send Commonwealth patients to various medical facilities off island for treatment.

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