Common ground: Josh Green and Duke Aiona vow to fast track reform at Hilo Medical Center

Two candidates vying to be Hawaii’s next governor tackle the issue of health care on the Big Island — specifically addressing the situation at one of the state’
Published: Sep. 5, 2022 at 3:22 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 5, 2022 at 7:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two candidates vying to be Hawaii’s next governor tackle the issue of health care on the Big Island — specifically addressing the situation at one of the state’s most overcrowded and understaffed hospitals.

Hilo Medical Center isn’t just in dire need of beds.

It also has a severe shortage of full-time nurses.

It’s a health care crisis that, if it isn’t solved, could lead to disastrous consequences.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona and Democratic candidate Josh Green agree what’s happening at Hawaii Island’s largest hospital can’t continue.

Inside Hilo Medical Center, there are about the same number of beds now as there were when the hospital was built nearly 40 years ago.

“Our population has grown exponentially. Patients are getting sicker,” said progressive care unit nurse Caitee McAllister.

The result:

“We’ve been operating at about 130% capacity throughout the hospital,” said emergency room nurse Tyler Sumner. “In the ER we’re seeing from 140 to 160 patients a day.”

Intensive Care Unit nurse Ashley Mae added, “We don’t have space for these people.”

Aiona told HNN that the situation seems to be at an emergency level.

“One that needs to be addressed immediately,” he said.

Green told HNN, “The medical center will have my support for expansion. We need a 30 percent expansion of beds.”

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For the past two years, the hospital’s been pushing a plan to add on a new wing.

The $50 million extension would be built above the parking lot on the mauka side of the facility housing a brand new 18-bed intensive care unit on the second floor.

The third floor would hold an additional 36 permanent medical surgical beds.

It’s a plan hospital leaders hoped would be further along by now. But funding fell through for the project last legislative session.

“This is another longstanding issue that has been kicked down the road by administrations,” said Aiona. “When you’re touting a $2 billion surplus. I can tell you I think they have more than enough money to address this concern right now.”

Aiona added problems go beyond Hilo Medical Center, saying he believes the entire Hawaii Health Systems Corporation needs to be evaluated.

Meanwhile, Green says the state needs to start thinking more strategically about health care as a whole.

“It’s got to be a system if we’re going to make it work,” Green said. “That’s why I talk about building a system on the Big Island that accommodates their needs from east to west. I’ll be supporting this (Hilo) expansion. I’ll be supporting a process that gets us a new hospital in Kona over time. And I would like to see a full collaboration over time.”

On top of capacity issues, Hilo Medical Center is the most understaffed hospital in the state.

Right now, they’re short about 75 full-time nurses.

To get by, the facility is heavily dependent on travelers who are flown in from the continent to help.

Both candidates agree the creation of workforce housing is a must to attract and retain staff.

Green says incentives like student loan forgiveness are also important.

“For those who train here and stay here for five years,” he said.

Green added incentives would also apply to caregivers who come to Hawaii and work in rural areas.

Aiona says he’d consider making changes to the tax law.

“In the medical profession this is a big issue in regard to the GET tax,” he said. “The exemption for doctors and their medical services. I think it’s a huge factor for a lot of the doctors who are leaving.”

Hilo Medical Center will once again pitch its $50 million expansion plan to the Legislature this upcoming session.