Not many people connect the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Surf Contest with Wahiawa General Hospital (WGH). Bottom line, the surf contest would not be possible without the existence of WGH. At a hearing on HCR 118/HR 73, Chief Executive Officer Don Oden attested to that fact, testifying that Wahiawa is the only hospital in the North Shore service area with the Emergency Room facilities capable of responding to an event of that magnitude, which, by Quicksilver estimates, has been known to draw record crowds of more than 30,000. The resolutions (HCR 118/HR 73) call for $6 million in aid over 2 years for the small, standalone private non-profit hospital.
UPW members joined their co-workers at the state capitol in an effort to further rally support among lawmakers for the resolutions – some arriving by bus and some in their personal vehicles. Chief Steward Maria Coleman who works in Long Term Care at the hospital spoke about the urgency of the situation stating that the hospital has “between six to nine months to prepare for the worst”. She says the aid will ensure hospital doors will stay open for two more years. Only expecting around 400 signatures, the group at the hospital started a petition and got more than 7,000 signatures in less than a week.
The UPW has long understood the importance of this hospital to the central Oahu and North Shore communities with nearly 200 UPW members working at the hospital. UPW State Director Dayton Nakanelua submitted testimony in support of the measure, recognizing the devastating effects a closure would have on the affected communities. “This is a true example of the power of people, and the power of grassroots organizing,” he said.
Wahiawa picked up the slack, and augmented services when St. Francis West closed up shop on West Oahu. In fact, the State, recognizing a crisis in the Hawaii healthcare industry, awarded $3.5 million in capitol improvement grants to upgrade the Wahiawa Emergency Room, and accommodate the influx of Emergency Room visits after the closure. Now that Queens has acquired St. Francis West facilities and opened its doors at that location, Wahiawa is in danger of closing.
UPW Operating Room Steward Frank Pavao testified at the hearing. We had the opportunity to speak with him at length outside the hearing. “One thing you have to remember about Wahiawa,” he said, “We’re not just not just a hospital, we’re a family, there. When you come, you’re not a patient. You’re not a number. You’re a family member. We treat everybody as if they’re family.” He says many of the employees have been working at the hospital for more than 20 years, stressing that they stay at the Hospital because they love it there – even with the promise of higher wages from hospitals in town.
With the wealth of experience at the hospital, Frank also talked about the many healthcare professionals, Wahiawa has trained over the years. “You can’t teach experience,” he says. Wahiawa was the flagship for the John a Burns School of Medicine Family Practice Residency Program, and subsidized the program for over 20 years. According to administrative personnel testifying at the hearing, it was difficult to let that program go after so many years – especially for lack of funding.
“The prospect of Wahiawa General Hospital closing is a move into dangerous and uncharted territory that took a turn for the worse last session with the privatization of the HHSC Maui Region through the passing of ACT 103, ” says State Director Dayton Nakanelua. “The last stand-alone healthcare facility on Oahu, we can’t afford to let healthcare giants dictate our access to healthcare services.”
The Resolution was passed out of the house committee with amendments. The issue gained support at an April 5th hearing on HB 1700 by the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, where Senator Donavan Dela Cruz proposed the State buy 2 separate parking lot properties owned by the hospital at a price of $5 million, thereby “infusing” those funds into the hospital. While reactions to the proposal by employees were mixed, employees seemed to agree that the proposal by Dela Cruz was better than no support at all.
Much thanks goes to Representative Marcus Oshiro of the Wahiawa District who did the leg work to introduce the resolution in the House. He answered concerns by employees present after the committee hearing on HB 1700, saying he was “cautiomistic” and it was necessary to look at hospital protections in the terms and conditions of the land transfer. “We need to acknowledge what the Senate has done today…a symbolic support of providing $5 million in the budget,” he said.
WGH holds a special place in the Representative’s heart. In fact, he sat on the board at WGH for many years. According to Oshiro, the hospital services a heavy aging and homeless population, and has been largely impacted by federal cutbacks to Medicare and Medicaid. He says it would be a shame if the hospital closed, especially after the opening of their new Emergency Room facilities.
Oshiro continues to beat the pavement to raise awareness on the issue and shared a presentation he is using in the community with us at the UPW Headquarters on School Street. “People don’t realize,” he says, “that the financial challenges now being experienced by the hospital are all part of a state-wide healthcare crisis identified publicly by the State Department of Health in 2011, through Director Chiyome Fukino.” Oshiro is reaching out to the North Shore community, saying people may literally die if their only choice is to be transported from the remote areas of the North Shore to Pali Momi or Queens West. He reminded us of CEO Don Oden’s testimony about the Eddie, “There’s no way you can put 30,000 people on a beach anywhere, without an emergency room close by. We’re not just talking about the safety of the surfers,” said Oshiro, “We’re talking about the Safety of the Community and those in the crowd.”
“During this uncertain time, one thing is certain,” says State Director Nakanelua, “Saving the Eddie, and saving lives means saving Wahiawa General Hospital!”