Hospital privatization bill advances in state Senate


Legislation aimed at allowing privatizion of Hawaii’s public hospitals continues to advance, as legislators try to allay employees’ fears that their jobs will be in jeopardy.

On Wednesday, Senate Bill 1306 was approved by the Senate Committee on Health, bringing closer the possibility that eight public hospitals on the Big Island, Maui and Lanai will be managed by Phoenix-based Banner Health Systems in a public-private partnership pending finalization of a deal with Hawaii Health Systems Corp., the hospitals’ current operator.

State Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, said the bill advanced after protections for current employees were added.

“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 HHSC employees served as a 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 opposes the legislation.

“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 jobs for the middle class, but then they keep cutting jobs from the middle class and this bill will do the same.”

HMC registered nurse Maureen Vierra said 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 five 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.

“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 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 Ways and Means Committee within the next two or three weeks if it is to pass this session, Green said.

From there, it could enter conference committee sometime in April.

Meanwhile, a companion bill is working its way through committees in the state House of Representatives. 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 nonpublic status for Hawaii hospitals. It passed through the House Committee on Consumer Protection & Commerce on Wednesday.