Special Session extended as Governor continues negotiations with Maui hospitals union

Special Session extended as Governor continues negotiations with Maui hospitals union
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Special Session aimed at keeping three Maui county hospitals afloat while they transition from state ownership to Kaiser Permanente has been extended.

The session was called last week Tuesday after the governor vetoed a bill he said promised excessive payouts for state employees who work at the three hospitals, which Kaiser is set to take over from the state.

Lawmakers had the choice to override Ige's veto or work with him on an amendment to change it. They were expected to introduce a draft of an amendment on Monday. Instead, they passed a resolution to extend the session for a few more days.

The decision frustrated several Senators, who felt the Governor should have settled this dispute already.

"The issue right now is regarding negotiations between the Governor and the unions. That is not the role of the Legislature," said Senator Donna Mercado Kim (D - Kalihi, Kapalama), who urged fellow lawmakers to vote against the extension and instead end the Special Session.

"We should adjourn and let the Governor call us back into session, as he has every right to do so. He has the power to do that. Instead of keep guessing.The taxpayers are paying for everyday that we extend or for our Neighbor Island legislators who have to fly in and per diem. These are costs that are being put on the backs of our taxpayers -- and we have no clue, no clue as to what it is that we need to do at this point. It's making us look ridiculous," said Mercado Kim.

Lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction to be stuck in a Special Session while negotiations are ongoing.

"To drag this out as we've done already and not have a clear definition of where we're going, I think reflects poorly upon us as legislators," said Senator Sam Slom (R - Hawaii Kai).

At stake is whether lawmakers can keep the privatization deal with Kaiser alive, which most believe is essential to providing health care in Maui county.

The bill the Governor vetoed was intended to assist state employees who will be affected when Maui Memorial, Kula Hospital and Clinic, and Lanai Community Hospital are taken over by Kaiser. The transfer is scheduled for October 1. However, the employees are all working under a state contract that doesn't run out until next June.

Lawmakers came up with their own proposal to address the concerns that have been raised by UPW -- the union representing the Maui hospital workers. Their amendment would have provided two separation benefit options -- one they say honors the existing state contract, another that offers a severance package for those who wish to leave the state system.

"The Governor, under the bill, would have the authority to place them in the hospital system or in an equivalent state position on Maui or to even provide for a leasing of employees to Kaiser until the end of the contract," said Representative Scott Saiki (D - Kakaako).

As the bill was originally written, employees would have been given a choice of early retirement or a severance payment, but Ige says the measure would have had unintended tax status consequences. As a result, lawmakers removed the early retirement option from their amendment.

While the Governor admits the extension does put additional pressure on both sides of the negotiation -- he also says it is difficult to predict if and when a settlement will be reached.

"We had hoped that we would be able to complete all negotiations in time for this session and we obviously weren't. This is a complex transaction. I would say, it is the most complex transaction the state has ever undertaken," explained Ige, who says negotiations have been taking place "non-stop".

"There's no explicit timetable for arriving at a settlement. We've had good discussion and we are making progress and we do believe that we will be able to get to a settlement," Ige said.

HGEA, another union representing hospital workers, is now threatening to sue the state. Lawmakers say the union has expressed it doesn't want its members to be treated differently than UPW. They say if a settlement agreement is reached that give UPW certain benefits, HGEA wants the same. If not, they may file suit as early as this week.

"Worst case scenario is that you have more than one lawsuit that can't be resolved and that may cause the whole entire transaction to fall apart," said Saiki.

Lawmakers will reconvene at the Capitol on Wednesday.

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