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Queen’s, NHCH administrators face questions, concerns at community meeting

Updated: 
July 12, 2017 - 12:05am

WAIMEA — North Hawaii residents packed the Waimea School cafeteria Tuesday anxious to hear from administrators of The Queen’s Health Systems and North Hawaii Community Hospital in the wake of reports of layoffs at the hospital.

The meeting, facilitated by the Waimea Community Association, was called specifically in response to community concerns about staffing and other issues, said Patti Cook, association president.

“Concerns were out there,” she said.

A formal affiliation between North Hawaii Community Hospital and The Queen’s Health Systems became official in January 2014, which made the hospital a corporate entity under Queen’s. The president and chief executive officer of Queen’s, Art Ushijima, is also chair of the North Hawaii Community Hospital Board of Trustees.

Community concerns about hospital staffing hit the press at the beginning of June, when North Hawaii News reported that at least eight employees had been given notice or had been terminated since late March, including some with more than 10 years of experience, the publication reported.

In an op-ed published in West Hawaii Today, Ushijima and NHCH president Cindy Kamikawa said, “there have been no mass layoffs at NHCH.”

The two said that “a handful of positions” had been eliminated, an adjustment “based on volume and need based on skill set.”

A fact sheet distributed at Tuesday’s meeting put the total number of eliminated positions last month at six, equal to five and a half full-time equivalents, it said. The fact sheet explained that restructuring allowed the hospital “to gain some efficiencies, thereby eliminating the need for some positions.”

Area residents said in advance of the meeting they had concerns about how layoffs would affect services and the quality of care at their local hospital.

Waimea resident Kyuwon Lee said he had heard about the layoffs at the hospital and questioned their impact on the community.

“So what that means to me is, is there going to be a lack of health care because these employees are gone?” he asked.

Waikoloa resident Gail Jackson said she’d been following news reports that oncologist Dr. Elliot Epner was among the employees let go, something that concerned her.

“I’m still confused about that,” said Jackson, who added that she’s had breast cancer three times. “I want to know what’s happening in oncology.”

Jackson said she’s been satisfied with other services at the hospital, such as rehab and orthopedics but remained uneasy about the future of oncology there.

“I mean, they can’t get along without an oncologist,” she said.

Kamikawa said during the meeting’s question-and-answer session that the hospital is currently in the recruitment phase for an oncologist.

Throughout the presentation by a panel composed of Ushijima, Kamikawa and the hospital’s chief medical officer, chief of staff and ambulatory services medical director, administrators spent much of the time focusing on upcoming plans for the hospital, such as a planned $25 million expansion of the emergency room.

But when the floor opened for questions, many audience members came to the microphone with questions and harsh criticism about staffing at the hospital.

Registered nurse Sue Gingrich, who formerly worked at the hospital, said she believed not enough attention was being paid to staff, saying that “many employees’ future has been pulled out from under them.”

“At the moment,” she told the panel, “we are not fulfilling our time-honored covenant to the community and our promise of excellent care to all.”

Her comments were met with loud applause from the crowd.

In response, Ushijima reiterated an earlier point he made, saying that when the affiliation was established, the first goal was to keep the hospital’s doors open and continue operations. That’s not an easy task, he said, given the challenges rural community health facilities face.

“And that scenario is not changing and so we have to improve the operations,” he said. “And not only here in North Hawaii but also throughout the enterprise.”

While the changes are tough, he added, it’s better than the direction the hospital was headed before the affiliation took place, he said to the crowd.

“We know that if we continued on the path as there had been before, that North Hawaii could not continue, so the question is how do you make the necessary changes and it is very tough.”

“But today you have a community hospital that continues to serve you with excellent physicians and excellent staff,” he added.

Audience members also applauded questions about what some see as a work culture that has led to some employees being fearful of speaking out and even worried about whether they had a job to return to the very next day.

Responding to one audience member, Ushijima said “every employee has the right and opportunity to speak … to raise their concerns.

“And first of all let me just say that any employee at North Hawaii Community Hospital going to work tomorrow is still employed,” he added, before again saying that the hospital was on the brink of shuttering before Queen’s came in.

That comment prompted a call of “Why?” from one person in the crowd.

“Why?” he replied, “Because it was not generating enough revenues to cover its costs.”

And since the affiliation, he said, the hospital has not missed payroll and Queen’s has committed more than $36 million to the North Hawaii Community Hospital.

Furthermore, he said, Queen’s leadership said at the time the affiliation was being considered that it wouldn’t be an easy road ahead.

“Most affiliations fail,” he said. “That’s documented. We are trying to make this work. We are committed to this, but we also need your help. We cannot do this alone because you have to support the hospital.”

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