St. John Tradewinds News

Governor Promotes Wellness as Cure to High Insurance Cost

Pictured above: Governor Mapp speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, October 25. Photo provided by Judi Shimel.

ST. THOMAS — Gov. Kenneth Mapp announced the start of a strategy this week to promote wellness practices and a healthier lifestyle to 26,000 government workers, retirees and their dependents. Mapp said trying to cover the cost of public sector benefits had prompted his administration to take a new tact.

Mapp also introduced new leadership for the Bureau of Information Technology in an effort to help law enforcement curb the rising homicide rate. The Tuesday press conference also gave the chief executive a chance to confirm speculation that his chief of staff had resigned.

St. Thomas businessman Randolph Knight was hailed as “a committed and dedicated Virgin Islander” by Mapp, who also dispelled questions about conflicts between Knight and members of the cabinet.

“Last year, after we formed our financial team for the executive branch, the lieutenant governor and I were briefed on the issues of the health insurance plan, concerning government workers,” Mapp said.

At that time the annual premium paid by the government for health insurance was $160 million. This year, he said, premiums rose another $5 million. Within the next two years the government’s cost to cover health insurance for workers, retirees and their families could top $200 million.

And that, he said, would be too much.

“Two hundred million would be 28 percent of the general fund revenues of the territory of the Virgin Islands and, my friends, it would simply be a plan we could not afford to pay.”

Part of the solution proposed at the Oct. 25 press conference is for government workers to take better care of their health. “We have very little choice but to change what we do,” Mapp said. 

To that end, he described his latest trip to the U.S. mainland in the company of Health Commissioner Michelle Davis, Health Insurance Board Director Beverly Joseph, Deputy Chief of Staff Rochelle Corniero and others.

The first stop, he said, was to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for advice on “establishing a trajectory of wellness” in the Virgin Islands. There the governor spoke with CDC Director Tom Frieden about setting up wellness and fitness throughout the Virgin Islands.

The idea, Mapp said, was “to give government employees, their dependents and retirees and persons of interest in the communities, to go to these fitness and wellness centers in the community and at very little cost.”

The next visit was to a Marriott resort in Florida. The Biggest Loser spa and resort provides meal service and exercise plans that support dietary changes and better health.

Since April, at Carnival time, Mapp declared he was on a quest to lose 75 pounds. Since then, he said, he’d lost 52 pounds although one or two may have crept back on.

A number of callers to local radio talk shows and commentators on social media have suggested the latest visit to a luxury weight loss spa was a junket. The governor denied his visit to the Biggest Loser Spa was made at taxpayer’s expense. The resort stay was reportedly arranged with help from the Department of Tourism.

“The government of the Virgin Islands did not pay any fee for me to attend,” Mapp said.

Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty did not attend the Tuesday press conference. Government House Communications Director Cherie Munchez did not answer a phone inquiry about the travel arrangements for Davis, Joseph and others.

While at Biggest Loser Resort, the VI team worked at and learned about wellness daily from 6 am to 7 pm. Exercise and eating prepared meals were part of the routine. There was also counseling about making better health choices part of one’s lifestyle.

The governor often pokes fun at his big belly and his love of the dinner table but said whittling down the weight is important.

There were also long talks about how the VI government can create a curriculum of wellness for the territory. Not everyone can visit a weight loss resort, Mapp said, but they can learn how to avoid the consumption of excess sugar, salt and fried foods.

Joseph addressed the gathering to share her experience. As a government worker living with chronic disease, she said, what she learned at the Biggest Loser Resort was beneficial. “I came in at 309 pounds and came out at 292 in one week,” Joseph said.

The wellness program would try to encourage more workers like the GESC director to manage their chronic illnesses, Mapp said. In his initial presentation the governor said there are many people in the public sector suffering from chronic illness that are brought on by poor lifestyle choices.

By doing so, they can help themselves and the health insurance system avoid frequent trips to the doctor or clinic.

“We have preventative services under the plan. Use it. CIGNA gives the territory $400,000 in wellness dollars,” Joseph said.

Mapp said he too lost “pounds and inches” while on the trip, but eschewed the specifics. And because of the partnership Tourism has with the Marriott hotel chain doing business in the territory, the governor said he wants to see Commissioner Doty explore the prospects for bringing a specialty resort here as well.