Lawmakers look to tackle doctor shortage problem - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Lawmakers look to tackle doctor shortage problem

Mark Stitham, M.D. Mark Stitham, M.D.
Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu
Sen. Josh Green Sen. Josh Green

By Leland Kim - bio | email

HAWAII STATE CAPITOL (KHNL) -  A key lawmaker looks to help fix Hawaii's doctor shortage problem. With no relief in sight, lawmakers today looked at ways on how to tackle this issue this legislative session.

And advocates for doctors have an ally in the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee.  He is Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-Waipahu, Waikele, Village Park, and says finding a way to keep doctors in Hawaii is the single biggest policy issue facing our state.  And doctors in Hawaii are hopeful something can be done this session.

Mark Stitham, M.D., is a Kailua psychiatrist who's been practicing medicine for close to 30 years.  He's seen his costs continue to climb.

"Hawaii's an expensive place. Reimbursement is low here," he said.  "We are in the bottom eight states or something and we have one of the highest cost of living."

At least 100 doctors have left Hawaii since 2007, according to the Hawaii Medical Association, and Dr. Stitham has seen some of his colleagues leave.

"When people can't get a primary -- I lost my primary care doctor Helen Ng because she couldn't afford to practice anymore," said Dr. Stitham, who is board certified in adult, child, and forensic psychiatry. "So I had to scramble to try and find another one."

Last legislative session, the tort -- or medical liability -- reform bill died in the House Judiciary Committee.  This session, it has an advocate in its new chair, Rep. Karamatsu.

"There are a number of bills we've introduced across the board, basically trying to retain our doctors in the state of Hawaii, recruit and retain them," he said.

Karamatsu says this is probably the biggest issue lawmakers face this session.

"It's something that can't be resolved right away, but we can take a stab at trying to reduce that problem in Hawaii," he said.

Sen. Josh Green, who is also a doctor on the Big Island, says different groups have to work together to find a solution.

"To forge a compromise, I think we have to do it for the people and I'd like to see both the medical and legal communities come together and do this, get it over with, and have some kind of improvement on our healthcare system," said Sen. Green, D-West Hawaii.

Rep. Karamatsu is hopeful.

"Do you think a compromise can be reached this session?" asked KHNL.

"I'm hoping there could be a compromise," he said. "It's possible."

And so is Dr. Stitham.

"Yes, I am," he said.  "I am hopeful because for the first time electronic and print media are reporting this and the impact it has on patients."

Sen. Green's bill (SB 1074) looks to provide tax credit for doctors who practice in rural areas and put a cap on non-economic damages at $1 million, or up to $3 million for catastrophic injuries.  There would be no limit on economic damages.  The bill would have a shelf life of five years set to expire on July 31, 2014, so lawmakers can revisit the issue at that time.

Rep. Karamatsu introduced a similar bill (HB 1784) on the House side, which would limit "the amount awarded for non-economic damages in medical tort cases to $750,000 aggregate and $250,000 per physician, healthcare provider, healthcare facility, and any other involved parties.  The bill also sets the maximum for non-economic damages in cases of gross negligence at $3 million.

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