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Interior's visit to Guam will have lasting impacts

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The Interior Department has primary federal responsibility over Guam and the other insular areas. That's why the trip here by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell - no matter how brief - was vitally important to local officials.

There is no substitute for seeing and hearing about situations first-hand. Governor Eddie Calvo says for one, it was refreshing to hear a cabinet level official concur with Guam's position on Compact impact reimbursement. "Now we have a secretary of Interior that has acknowledged that what Guam, as a community is putting out in terms of cost of this in-migration as a result of the Compact treaties is vastly greater than the compensation that we're getting from the current Compact funding," said Calvo.

Compact impact funding is capped by law at $30 million per year, to be shared by all insular areas. And officials concede that getting any more money out of Congress, is not likely to happen. "We're going to be working to see if we can address that, as opposed to just pushing for additional federal money, which is very difficult to come by right now, for any programs in this current Congress," said Jewell. "So we're going to get as creative as we can be, recognizing that this is going to be a significant problem, that's not going to get better over time, most likely."

One of those creative solutions announced by Jewell during her trip here is the opening of a one-stop center to provide migrants access to job training and education. The goal is to help them become more self sufficient, less reliant on local resources, thus saving the Government of Guam money.

Governor Calvo said, "It would be an area where we would have immigrants coming into this island, having the ability to sit down with folks that have knowledge of different government agencies and federal programs that can assist them in a smooth transition into this community, so I think that's a big plus."

Calvo says the meetings also helped raise understanding of problems such as the exclusion of FSM Federated States of Micronesia citizens from FEMA assistance, which Jewell herself described as an "unintended consequence" of federal reform.  "She was clearly shocked," the island's chief executive detailed, "and she believes this is contrary to what the treaty is all about. She also believes that some of these provisions occurred as a result of welfare reform, that was not the intent."

With little expectation of new congressional funding, interior is looking to identify as much existing federal assistance as it can.  Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Esther Kiaina, heads an interagency task force formed just for that purpose, about which Jewell said, "There are efforts underway again to work with other agencies in a collaborative effort to identify both short term and long term strategies, both funding and statutory changes."

It is this interagency task force that officials are counting on to be the "squeaky wheel" that will help to ensure Guam's issues get heard. "The problem now with all these agencies is they have so many other areas they have to look into, when you talk about health and human services, when you talk about Department of Labor. There are so many other areas that are in their agenda, when it comes to the fifty states and also the territories, so to have this interagency task force put together, it can focus these issues of these particular agencies into what are Guam issues. So we feel this is very important," Calvo continued.

And, the governor says, the alternative funding sources they will explore can still yield big results. He cites ongoing efforts to increase federal repayments to the Guam Memorial Hospital as a good example. "We do believe with certain adjustments being made, which I think there's been a lot of progress. The difference with the current reimbursements to the hospital, anywhere from $1 million to $3 million, well that can change to $16 million to $18 million annually with a signature. And it's just a matter of administrative changes and adjustments be made and this is where I think this interagency task force will be a tremendous asset to Guam," he added.

Overall, Calvo says he is encouraged by Jewell's visit, and by the new reimbursement strategies that the tight federal budget is forcing them to come up with. "That was critical by Secretary Jewell: give me the numbers, give me the facts so that we can look to resolving it. So whether its TEFA rebasing at the hospital, whether its repatriation of the millions of dollars that health insurance companies on Guam pay to the federal government for an exchange that we're not participating in, or getting that money back to our hospital or our public health agencies, these are the areas we can work on with the department of interior and with the federal Interagency task force," he shared.

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