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Funds for residency program sought in Legislature


Tribune-Herald staff writer

State Sen. Josh Green of Kona jump-started the effort to get more doctors on the Big Island on Thursday with passage of his own bill in the Senate Health Committee, which he chairs.

SB664 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 System Corp. Primary Care Training Program, which proponents of the bill say will bring more doctors to the island for training and, hopefully, to stay.

SB1220, which is nearly identical to SB664, is scheduled for a hearing before the same committee Friday afternoon in Honolulu, said Kaloa Robinson, who has been tracking the bills as director of marketing for Hilo Medical Center.

A third bill that would also appropriate the same amount of funding for the program over the next two years, HB417, has been introduced in the state House of Representatives, but hearings have not been scheduled for that measure.

Lori Rodgers, executive director of the Hilo Medical Center Foundation, distributed copies of the bills this week with an “urgent plea” for individuals and organizations in the Big Island community to lend their support to the effort to overcome a critical shortage of primary health care providers on the Big Island.

Green said that as a physician and graduate of a similar residency training program on the mainland, and as an elected state official, “I really believe we have a need for more family practitioners.” He said the measure he introduced was supported by testimony from Howard Ainsley, CEO of Hilo Medical Center, and Bruce Anderson, CEO of HHSC, which operates eight hospitals in Hawaii, including Hilo Medical Center.

“It’s a good bill,” Green said. “There was no opposition (Wednesday). I definitely hope to get this passed in the Legislature this year.”

Robinson said Friday’s hearing on SB1220 will likely still be held. “We gotta go through the process,” he said. “Eventually, it will go to Ways and Means.”

“Budgets are always tight,” Green acknowledged, “but we’ll continue to make our case.”

Proponents have been trying to get state money for a program to recruit and retain physicians on the Big Island since the mid-1990s.

Pleas for help from the community have been circulating this week among service and community groups online throughout the Hawaii Island community.

“We think it’s very important for the community to get behind this,” Rogers said. “Hopefully that’s what will push this through.”

Robinson said strong support for the bills has been offered by the the Hilo, Kona, Kohala, Japanese and Portuguese chambers of commerce on the Big Island.

The bill’s purpose is to address the shortage of primary care providers in the state by appropriating funds to the program at Hilo Medical Center. The funds would go to HHSC for implementation of the program.

Training provided by the program “will generate interdisciplinary teams capable of caring for four times as many patients as independent practicing physicians,” says SB1220, crafted by Sen. Gil Kahele of Hilo.

Kahele said he’s fine with Green’s bill. “The whole idea is to get something moving. Hopefully we’re successful. We’re working as a team.”

Kahele said final passage will not be easy because “everybody has their hand out” at the legislature. “We’re doing the best we can and this facilitates it.”

Rogers says the program has a “proven effective physician recruitment and retention strategy,” and that up to 80 percent of residents stay and practice where they train. She said it would train four new primary care providers each year and will reduce the cost of health care by reducing avoidable emergency room visits and hospital stays. Similar programs on the mainland have frequently shown positive returns on investment in other states where the program are supported, she added.

“Our island is experiencing a severe physician shortage,” Rogers said. Medical school graduates typically undergo three years of on-the-job residency training at hospitals, and the Rural Residency program was based on research that shows at least 80 percent of doctors stay and work where they complete their residency.

“It’s important that medical students train in our community so they can become comfortable here and understand the challenges that our island faces,” said the HMC Foundation’s website. “This is the best solution to attract, train and retain doctors and other medical professionals on an ongoing basis.”

The idea has been discussed since the 1990s, Rogers said. In 2008, the foundation raised funds to help Hilo Medical Center establish the island’s first residency program after state funding was withheld.

The Legislature in 2008 passed Act 277, allotting $4 million to the program. However, the funds were not released. The foundation petitioned then-Gov. Linda Lingle with more than 6,000 signatures in support of the program to no avail.

Email Hunter Bishop at hbishop@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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