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Editorials 2019-July-19

The heart of the matter

TWO freshman lawmakers have introduced measures to address two pressing issues facing the NMI today: the cost of medical referrals, and job opportunities for the youth.

Rep. Joseph A. Flores’s House Bill 21-57 proposes to allow medical referral patients to use airline miles — and credit-card bonus — earned by the government while Rep. Joel Camacho’s H.B. 21-48 would allow bars to hire 18-year-olds to serve or sell alcohol.

In Oct. 1995, Gov. Froilan C. Tenorio signed Public Law 9-54 “to require all bonus miles earned on flights paid for by the government be allocated to the medical referral program….” Section 1 of the law stated: “The Legislature finds that fiscal resources to support the medical referral program have become scarce, even to the point of threatening its termination, and therefore creative ways of meeting the needs of the program must be found. Since many airlines offer bonus mileage discounts, often called frequent flyer miles, as an inducement to use their services, and bonus miles earned on flights paid for by the CNMI government should belong to the government, a substantial benefit could be gained if the usage of those accrued miles was vested in the medical referral program.”

Well and good. But.

In Jan. 1998, a few days before his term ended, Gov. Froilan C. Tenorio signed Public Law 10-79 which repealed P.L. 9-54. Why?

“The Legislature finds that…the airline carriers cannot be required to establish either individual account numbers or collective master accounts for the benefit of the Commonwealth government; only two airlines (Northwest Airlines and Continental Micronesia) have assigned individual government employees with a mileage program number separate from their own personal mileage account numbers; the airlines cannot assign a master number to the government for the collective receipt of all bonus miles earned by government employees; without a master account, the earned mileage will remain in hundreds or thousands of individual government employee accounts and the Commonwealth will remain unable to use any or part of the bonus miles earned on flights paid for by the government for the benefit of the Medical Referral Program; although well intended, P.L. 9-54 cannot be implemented for the purpose for which it was enacted.”

In April 2015, Sen. Sixto K. Igisomar introduced S.B. 19-35 to “establish the CNMI Medical Referral Mileage Program to defray airfare costs of the CNMI Medical Referral Program….” According to the bill’s findings:

“As the CNMI healthcare facilities continue to provide inadequate medical care to address the increasing medical needs of the community, the rising costs in airfare continue to be a financial burden for the CNMI Medical Referral Program when making travel arrangements for patients, escorts, or health care staff. The Legislature finds that from FY 2012-FY 2014, the CNMI Medical Referral Program spent an average of $3.2M in excess of funds appropriated per fiscal year for airfare, subsistence allowance, hotel accommodations, and medical claims.”

The bill acknowledged “past attempts to defray airfare costs incurred by the CNMI Medical Referral Program through the enactment of Public Law 9-54 [which] was repealed due to several problems that were not clearly addressed…such as definitions of terms and how to properly transfer accrued miles earned through government funds to individuals in need under the CNMI Medical Referral Program.” At the time of its enactment, moreover, “airlines were unable to establish a master account to be used to collect all accrued miles under the expense of the government. The Legislature finds that as the times have changed, airlines are now able to accommodate such a request through respective travel benefit programs that would allow travelers to still earn miles while awarding the government with a point system. Participating in such a program, however, would result in the government forfeiting major discounts of up to 50 percent off select economy fares that is currently in place and has resulted in huge savings for the government.”

The measure introduced recently by Rep. Joseph Flores is a slightly updated version of S.B. 19-35 (which got stuck in committee). Among House Bill 21-57’s findings:

“As the times have changed, airlines are now able to keep accurate track of miles that are earned and utilized by the use of credit cards that will be utilized to purchase everyday items and ‘housekeeping’ expenses. Participating in such a program, will likely no longer cause the government to forfeit major discounts of up to 50 percent off select economy fares. Further, this program is not restricted to airline fare purchases, rather anything that is purchased by the CNMI government credit card can be used to accrue mileage.”

As for Rep. Joel Camacho’s H.B. 21-48, it would amend current law (4 CMC §5565) to allow an 18-year-old “to mix or serve any alcoholic beverages at any on-sale establishment,” and to be “admitted or allowed to enter into any Class-3 On-Sale establishment whose primary business is selling alcoholic beverages, such as: night clubs, bars, cabarets, karaoke clubs and disco clubs.”

Cutting costs while protecting a vital public service on the one hand; and, on the other, opening new job opportunities for the local youth. These are what Reps. Flores and Camacho are proposing, but their bills, like most other bills, may fall short of their goals or may even create new and unforeseen problems. But at least Reps. Flores and Camacho are actually doing something that could benefit members of the public. To be sure, there are other ways to address healthcare and/or labor issues, but they usually involve measures that are dead on arrival because they ignore political realities or basic arithmetic.

Here before us then are House Bills 21-48 and 21-57. Let the discussions begin. Let’s have public hearings and testimony from stakeholders and other members of the community. Let’s find out how and why these measures may or may not work — and if there are other possible “solutions” out there.