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Overdue bills keep patients without options

By Moneth Deposa SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 9, 2010) - It’s been weeks since off-island trips were put on hold for medical referral patients, yet the program remains suspended as of yesterday due to the government’s continuing failure to pay its obligation to travel agencies.

Public Health Secretary Joseph Kevin Villagomez confirmed this with the Saipan Tribune yesterday, saying that Medical Referral personnel are still working with the Finance Department on securing the payment for these vendors.

"As of this morning, that’s the information I got on the status of the program. The Medical Referral personnel are still working with Finance today and will report back to me," said Villagomez yesterday.

The medical referral program has been on hold since October after three travel agencies-Wings Travel, Pacific Sky, and World Tour and Travel-refused to process the airline tickets of medical referral patients until the government’s obligation is paid in full.

As of last month, over US$180,000 was owed these travel agencies, according to Villagomez. The US$180,000 debt, he said, reflects over a month’s delay of payment for each vendor.

As of yesterday, only World Tour and Travel has accepted medical referral patients but only for trips to neighboring Guam.

In an interview yesterday, Wings Travel manager Ed Camacho confirmed that they have yet to be paid by the CNMI government but he remains hopeful that the company could collect within the week.

He said the company started not accepting reservations from medical referral patients since four weeks ago, adding that this was the first time the company implemented the policy.

Of the US$180,000 the government owes travel agencies, Saipan Tribune learned that about US$70,000 is owed Wings Travel. The company provides airline tickets to almost 50 percent of medical referral patients in the Commonwealth.

When asked if the company is willing to reconsider its policy in case of emergencies, Camacho said the company may not be able to do so due to its limited resources.

Camacho said the company has been using its own resources in paying for the plane tickets of patients referred outside the CNMI.

"Definitely not. We love to help, but we already used our resources and even if it’s’s a risk to our business," he explained.

Villagomez earlier said the travel ban has affected five to 10 medical referral cases in the first week-all for follow-up examinations.

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

Medical Referral officer Ron Sablan was on leave yesterday when contacted by Saipan Tribune.

Acting Finance Secretary Connie Agulto was not available for comments when contacted yesterday.

The Department of Public Health spent US$16.3 million in referring medical cases to various medical facilities outside the Commonwealth in the last four fiscal years, ending in fiscal year 2009.

Fiscal year 2009 recorded the highest expenditure of US$7.4 million for 907 patients referred to other hospitals. This figure translates to over 50 percent increase from fiscal year 2008’s expenses of US$4.4 million for 716 cases.

In fiscal year 2007, CHC noted 565 medical referral cases and spent US$1.5 million compared to US$2.8 million spent in fiscal year 2006 for 526 cases.

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