By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Legislation aimed at allowing the privatization of Hawaii’s public hospitals continues to advance, with legislators working to address some of the issues which have drawn criticism from employees who fear their jobs could be in jeopardy.
On Wednesday, Senate Bill 1306 passed through the Senate Committee on Health, bringing closer the possibility that eight public hospitals on the Big Island, Maui and Lanai could be turned over to Phoenix, Ariz.-based Banner Health Systems in a “public-private partnership,” if a deal with their current operator, Hawaii Health Systems Corp., is finalized.
In a phone interview Thursday morning, state Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, said the bill advanced only after he and other committee members approved two amendments. One gives the Legislature the power to approve any deal between HHSC and a private company. The other, he said, will serve to preserve hospital workers’ bargaining units.
“We created an amendment to protect all the workers, so that they would continue to have benefits and be able to bargain in a proper way,” Green said. “I also amended the bill to force a ratifying vote of the House and Senate if there’s going to be any sale to a private entity. We’ve restored control to the situation.”
Green, who is an emergency room physician at HHSC’s Kona Community Hospital, said that testimony from various longtime HHSC employees served as a very powerful reminder that any legislation would have to take their concerns into consideration.
“People testified that have been working for our hospitals for 10, 20, even 30 years,” he said. “I think we have to honor their service.”
One such testifier was Hilo Medical Center employee Drena Lynn Rodrigues. She told state senators that she stands in opposition to the legislation as it would jeopardize workers’ futures.
“There is a reason why these nonprofit hospitals are making so much money, I just don’t want it made on the backs of the people in these smaller communities,” she said. “Please do your research and vote No. I do not believe this is the best thing for our community. We are already struggling without the state bringing in another big corporation to take more money from us. Higher cost for services, higher cost for drugs, more taxes to pay for those who can’t pay for these higher cost. The Senate keeps saying we need to create job for the middle class, but then they keep cutting jobs from the middle class and this bill will do the same.”
Meanwhile, HMC registered nurse Maureen Vierra argued that services on the Big Island could suffer.
“Allowing HHSC to run with this concept will only decrease services and operational power of all of the affected hospitals. We in the health care industries are facing difficult times with the new Medicare-Medicaid guidelines and the transition of Obamacare. Do we really know what the impact is going to be with the new rules and guidelines!” she said. “What if 5 years down the road HHSC or a private entity has to close the smaller health care-critical access facility to ‘better manage’ to be ‘cost effective’! What about the smaller facilities and, the people!”
Among those supporting the bill was Wes Lo, chief executive officer of the Maui Region of HHSC. He argued that exploring public-private partnerships is integral to improving health care in Hawaii.
“I believe that a public-private partnership, as allowed under Act 182 (2009), will enable us to move forward by expanding our services and infrastructure at Maui Memorial Medical Center (MMMC) and other public hospitals across the state and enable us to provide our communities with access to the quality health care that they deserve,” he said.
The bill will have to go before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means within the next two or three weeks if it is to make it to the finish line this session, Green said. From there, it could enter conference committee sometime in April.
Meanwhile, a companion bill in the state House of Representatives is also working its way through committees. HB 1483 does not go nearly as far as the Senate bill, simply calling for the establishment of a task force to study the feasibility of allowing transitions to non-public status for Hawaii hospitals. It passed through the House Committee on Consumer Protection & Commerce on Wednesday.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.