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Top Stories of 2016 – Part 3: The transition that wasn’t

PC: Maui Memorial Medical Center
On the health care front, Maui started 2016 with high hopes as the groundbreaking new legislation was expected to take effect. A law allowing Maui Memorial Medical Center (MMMC), Lanai Community Hospital, and Kula Hospital, (all public state hospitals and part of the Hawaii Health System Corp.) to enter into a management lease with Kaiser Permanente passed in the 2015 session of the state legislature and was later signed by Gov. Ige. MMMC is Maui’s only acute care hospital. Altogether about 2,000 public workers are employed at the three facilities, of that number about 1,400+ jobs are at MMMC.

Kaiser Permanente is Hawaii’s largest health care provider and runs hospitals both in Hawaii and on the Mainland. The unionized nonprofit was scheduled to assume management of the three Maui facilities on July 1, 2016.

In January it looked like the happy ending to a long long trail.

Despite strenuous opposition from the public sector unions including the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) and the United Public Workers (UPW) it looked like Maui health care would finally break out of the antiquated public system where it had long been used as a political pawn and funding had been inadequate and unpredictable. At the time the law was passed MMMC ledger dripped with millions in red ink and even larger deficits were forecast ahead.

But as the great Yogi Berra said, “It’s not over until it’s over,” and despite the enabling law and the good intentions, one obstacle after another popped up.

The UPW sued, the HGEA with over 40,000 members and huge political clout made grumbling noises and pulled strings in the background. The negotiating team headed by Ige and staff kept promising that the transition would take place momentarily, but that day never came.

July 1, 2016 came and went but the transition did not occur. The date was pushed back a second and then a third time, until finally, in October at an emergency meeting of the regional board it was announced that Kaiser, apparently tired of the whole charade, would wait until all the public worker contracts expired on June 30, 2017 before assuming management functions.

Even those who could live with that delay in theory soon found that in reality, it was difficult if not impossible to run MMMC. In June 2016 a report published by the Maui News estimated the Maui hospitals had “367 vacancies out a total staff of nearly 2,000 countywide. ” The unfilled jobs were only part of the bad news: existing staff were retiring at a rapid rate and doctors and other health professionals were leery of signing on in such an uncertain climate. Perhaps worst of all there was no state funding in place for the current fiscal year, or rather the existing appropriation was designated for Kaiser and not the legacy state entity.

Going into the opening of this year’s legislative session which begins on Jan. 18, it is by no means clear what the ultimate outcome will be.

Will Kaiser eventually take over, as they continually say they intend to do? Or will the forces of inertia, political infighting, the power of the public workers unions and indifference to the needs of the Neighbor Islands prevail in Honolulu where all the shots are being called?

Whatever happens, the narrative is not a happy one for Team Ige whose credibility on Maui has ceased to exist.

In the meantime it’s a story that goes on and on and on. If you’re living on Maui this is a good time to stay healthy.

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About Susan Halas

Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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