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Bill seeks to ease doctor shortage


Tribune-Herald staff writer

A bill that would lead to more physicians in Hawaii County will be heard in the state Senate Ways and Means Committee today. Senate Bill 664 was passed out of the Senate Health Committee, chaired by Democratic state Sen. Josh Green of Kona, on Feb. 5.

The bill would appropriate $2.8 million in Fiscal Year 2013-14, and the same amount in the following fiscal year, to support Hilo Medical Center’s residency program, known as the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. Primary Care Training Program, which proponents say will bring more doctors to the island for training and to remain in practice here.

SB 664, introduced by Green, is the only bill still moving forward that would help to increase the severe shortage of physicians on Hawaii Island, said Kaloa Robinson, who has been tracking similar bills as director of marketing for Hilo Medical Center, which supports passage of SB 664. The bill was passed without opposition in the Senate Health Committee.

Yet while few doubt the dire need to fortify Hawaii Island’s ability to meet the health care needs of its growing population, the $5.6 million expenditure over two years will be scrutinized carefully in the Ways

and Means committee. “It’s where people start oohing and aahing,” Robinson said.

Hospital officials and support groups like the Hilo Medical Center Foundation, as well as business groups from throughout the state are supporting the measure to overcome a critical shortage of primary health care providers on the Big Island. The HMCF recently distributed copies of the bills with an “urgent plea” for individuals and organizations to lend their support.

“We’ve been doing presentations on Maui and Kauai,” Robinson said. “It’s not just a Big Island thing.” He said strong support for the bills also has been offered by the Hilo, Kona, Kohala, Japanese and Portuguese chambers of commerce on the Big Island, as well as the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii on Oahu.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi backed the bill in a letter to Green on Jan. 30.

“The state and Hawaii Island continue to face a severe physician shortage, with a recent study estimating that Hawaii County needs 150 more doctors to provide an adequate level of access to health care for our residents. Projections by the John A. Burns School of Medicine show the physician shortage will dramatically worsen in the next five years as many doctors retire,” Kenoi wrote.

“An important piece of the solution for our community is the rural residency program,” the mayor said. “We believe this is an important program that will benefit rural residents across the state.”

Howard Ainsley, CEO of Hilo Medical Center, and Bruce Anderson, CEO of HHSC, which operates eight hospitals in Hawaii, including Hilo Medical Center, also submitted testimony supporting the measure.

Proponents have been trying to get state money for a program to recruit and retain physicians on the Big Island since the mid-1990s. The funds that would be appropriated under the bill would go to HHSC for implementation of the physician’s recruitment and retention program.

HMCF Director Lori Rogers said that up to 80 percent of residents stay and practice where they train, and that training four new primary care providers each year would lower health care costs by avoiding emergency room visits and hospital stays. Similar programs elsewhere have demonstrated positive returns on their investment, she said.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, and Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, are also co-sponsors of SB 664, and both are also members of the Senate Ways and Measn Committee. It’s scheduled to be heard in conference room 211 today at 9:05 a.m.

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