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Lawmakers ax funding for residency program

April 4, 2014 - 6:05am

Days after announcing the selection of their first class of four medical residents, organizers of Hilo Medical Center’s Primary Care Residency Program got word that their request for operations funding had been thrown out of the state budget bill. Now, if it isn’t included during the Legislature’s joint conference committee, they say, the program could be in jeopardy.

“We’re looking right now, and trying to decide whether we can afford to continue the program if we lose the funding,” said Boyd Murayama, HMC’s assistant hospital administrator and medical group practice director.

On Monday, program and hospital administrators learned that the Senate Ways and Means Committee had removed their $2.8 million appropriation in the latest draft of the state budget, House Bill 1700. The money would be used to partially pay the salaries of the program’s five faculty members, as well as salaries for the program’s four resident physicians, and cover various expenses of the program, Murayama said.

The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, state Sen. David Ige, said Thursday that while the item may have been left out of the budget, another bill, Senate Bill 3091, which seeks a one-time appropriation for the program, remains alive as the session continues.

“I’ve been one of the biggest proponents of establishing that program,” he said. “We are trying to find money to support it going forward.”

Last year, the program received $1.8 million in funding from the state thanks to a bill submitted individually from the state budget’s. Prior to that, HMC had largely covered the costs for the five years leading to the start of the program, including the founding and support of the clinic that serves as the program training grounds, Hawaii Island Family Health Center. The program has also been supported heavily through a variety of grants, as well as community fundraising efforts by the Hilo Medical Center Foundation.

If the budget item is not included again during the joint session, Hilo Medical Center will have to take on the full cost of operating the residency program, Murayama said, and that could be an expense it just can’t handle.

“We want the public to understand that this is kind of serious, and we really need people to help us,” he said.

Lori Rogers, executive director of the HMC Foundation, sent out an email Wednesday enlisting the public’s help in convincing legislators to fund the program.

“This funding is crucial to help us further establish and sustain this much-needed program,” she wrote. “The Primary Care Training Program is a unique solution to the complex and growing problem of physician shortage on our neighbor island communities. We need your voice to help us build momentum and ask our legislators to reinstate the budgetary line item of $2.8 million back in to the governor’s budget.”

Rogers said the campaign to fund the program began in 2008.

“So far, we’ve raised $720,000 for the program from the community,” she said. “The support has been great. … But we really need a big donor. The foundation is ultimately looking for someone who can endow this program.”

Kristine McCoy, director of the residency program, said via a voice mail message that the program needs the continued support of the community if it is to succeed.

“I think we have a really good thing going here in terms of training a bunch of very high quality, cost-effective primary care providers,” she said. “I really hope that the community will, one more time, reach out to our state legislators, in particular our state senators, to let them know that health care is a priority for them. If they don’t have primary care, the state’s still going to be paying for (emergency room) visits, hospital admissions, (Intensive Care Unit) stays, and more, for people who don’t get the primary care that they need.”

State Sen. Gil Kahele, a Hilo Democrat who serves on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, couldn’t say Thursday why the funding hadn’t been included in the budget, but he was clear that he and other legislators are well aware of the importance of the residency program to neighbor island health care.

“The House and the Senate have different ways of trying to get things done,” he said. “The fact that we didn’t insert it on the Senate side when we reviewed it does not mean that it’s not going to pass. It all comes down to the conference committee. I know it is a priority for all our legislators. … We’re all trying to do the best for the state of Hawaii.”

For more information about the Hilo Medical Center Foundation’s fundraising efforts, visit hilomedicalcenterfoundation.org.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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