State getting closer to privatizing hospitals


HILO — Bills supporting the privatization of Hawaii public hospitals on Hawaii Island and Maui continue to advance in the Legislature, making it through the halfway point in the session on Tuesday.

“We’re now heading into the second half of the football game,” said state Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health.

But, even as the measures progress, Green says he and other legislators intend to take as much time as they need to fully weigh the consequences of any decision that would affect Hawaii Health Systems Corp., the operator of the state’s “safety net” health care facilities, so-called because they are often the only option available to their communities, especially on the neighbor isles.

“Under any circumstances, we have to be careful to not go too quickly,” Green said Wednesday morning. “I have a lot of questions that need to be answered still. … If somebody was concerned about how slowly it’s going, I’d say they’re not fully committed to Hawaii.”

Among the biggest and most important questions that Green says remain to be answered to his satisfaction concerning the privatization of public facilities are:

How the state’s health care workforce would be handled;

How patients on neighbor islands would be guaranteed to continue to receive service, and;

What specific subsidy from the state would be necessary to keep the facilities operating.

The legislation has taken center stage among a number of other important health care-related measures after it was learned in January that HHSC has been in talks with Phoenix-based private nonprofit provider Banner Health to take over the state’s eastern region of facilities, including Hawaii Island and Maui.

HHSC says such a partnership is necessary to combat rising costs, dwindling state subsidies, and a drop in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Both HHSC and Banner representatives say they are far from arriving at a deal, but Legislative approval is an important step in that process.

“This legislation is not about Banner Health. … We cannot emphasize too strongly that this legislation would be needed for any privatization transaction to occur, whether with Banner Health or with another private health care organization,” said Banner Executive Vice President Ronald Bunnell in testimony presented to legislators.

The surviving measures consist of Senate Bill 1306 and its more conservative companion, House Bill 1483. Both succeeded in crossing over in the Legislature on Tuesday after passing their third readings.

The House bill takes a slower approach, calling for the establishment of a task force to study the feasibility of allowing the operations of HHSC regions and their facilities to transition to a public-private partnership.

The Senate bill skips the task force step and goes straight to allowing the privatization of the state’s public hospitals.

Green said he would be meeting with House Committee on Health Chairwoman Della Au Belatti in the next few days.

“In the next two weeks we’ll have the next round of bill hearings, and we’ll have a better idea of where we stand,” he said.