Hospital officials offer upbeat forecast

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The question of privatization continues to hover over the East Hawaii Region of Hawaii Health Systems Corp.

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The question of privatization continues to hover over the East Hawaii Region of Hawaii Health Systems Corp.

The topic was one of several addressed Tuesday night as HHSC East Hawaii Board Chairman Kurt Corbin and CEO Dan Brinkman briefed community members during an annual forum at Hilo Medical Center.

Corbin and Brinkman gave an overview of the past year’s accomplishments and challenges, touching on everything from HMC’s full class of medical residents and the center’s national recognition for its intensive care unit and electronic medical records system to the downsizing of HMC’s extended care unit.

Brinkman also discussed new initiatives being tackled in East Hawaii, including future certification of the Hawaii Pacific Oncology Center.

The forum drew about 40 people, a noticeable decrease from last year’s event that administrators said attracted more than 100.

That meeting came amid layoffs at HMC in light of a projected budget shortfall for fiscal year 2016.

“The first part of the year, it was tough,” Brinkman said during his presentation Tuesday. “That loss was certainly hard for people.” The reductions “did improve our stability,” he said.

Looking to the next fiscal year, Brinkman said the funding East Hawaii receives from the state Legislature would be sufficient and no reductions in services were anticipated.

The region also will close out fiscal year 2016 with a “little bit of a cushion” thanks to a financial break HHSC received when planned increases to employee retirement benefits took effect later than expected.

The stability of basic services provided in East Hawaii put in relief the services HMC does not provide or needs to provide more of, Brinkman said.

“You get used to what we don’t have,” he said while showing one slide listing gaps in East Hawaii care offerings. “This is basic stuff that most communities have: If you have diabetes, you need to see an endocrinologist.”

This gap has led to greater consideration of the privatization option.

“The state for years has provided pretty steadfast, basic service,” Brinkman said, thanking state legislators for their advocacy work. “With health care changing … what happens as community needs start outpacing the ability to provide these services?”

The Maui region of HHSC is in the process of privatizing via a partnership with Kaiser Permanente. Last year, mainland hospital chain Adventist Health reached out to HMC about similar possibilities.

Brinkman said no plans to privatize had been embarked on just yet, but the controversial question still needed to be asked.

“I don’t think we’re going to answer the question tonight,” he said. “But what our board believes, what I believe, honestly, is (we) really should have the choice, that option to decide what our future is.”

One HMC nurse in attendance pointed out that employees had not been asked about the possibility of privatization.

Privatization was supported by some in the audience, including state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who serves on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Others, such as former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, spoke against the idea of privatization and asked what the role of the state might be in a new partnership.

“I really don’t know the answer, because it depends on the partner and the level we are partnering,” Brinkman said. He added that the state always will be involved to some extent because it pays for Medicaid.

Kim said private ownership would reduce transparency and the public’s ability to stay informed.

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“I wish you would spend your time fighting to keep this under government control under the present system,” he said. “The public is very proud of what you have accomplished with the state (funding).”

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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