Hamakua-Kohala Health working to expand facilities to accommodate physicians

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Hamakua-Kohala Health recently acquired the former Kohala Club Hotel and is transforming the building into doctors’ offices.

Although Hawaii continues to face a shortage of physicians, finding providers willing to practice isn’t a challenge for Hamakua-Kohala Health.

Hawaii’s physician shortage worsened in 2020, but CEO Irene Carpenter said HKH — which has clinics in Laupahoehoe, Honokaa, Waimea and Kapaau — doesn’t have difficulties recruiting or retaining providers.

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Its problem is space — or lack thereof.

“I have the doctors. I have the money to pay the doctors. I need more space,” said Carpenter.

For many providers, the cost and burdens of doing business prove to be a barrier to private practice.

To address those challenges, Carpenter said Hamakua-Kohala Health has been working to take over private practices from interested providers.

Those providers would work for HKH, and the organization would take care of all administrative, billing and other duties, “everything except seeing your patients,” she explained.

Carpenter said that’s been a pull for doctors who have joined the HKH, but also for those who want to come on but haven’t been able to because of the lack of space.

“Right now, I’m at the point I literally do not have any space to put anybody,” she said.

The organization picked up an additional 5,000-6,000 new patients in January after taking over three private practices in Waimea.

And more new patients are joining daily, including those who are new to Hawaii, those who have lost their jobs and, subsequently, their health insurance, and those whose doctors have closed private practices.

“We have a plan to take care of these patients,” Carpenter said. “One is to expand spaces we provide services.”

That work is already underway.

According to Carpenter, new office space in Waimea will be ready for occupancy in May.

HKH also has purchased the former Kohala Club Hotel, “and we’re literally in the process of transforming it into doctor offices,” she said.

The organization also bought two mobile clinics that will be parked on the hotel grounds to increase the amount of space HKH has to see people.

Carpenter said HKH also plans for the Kohala site to offer research and training opportunities for providers.

“One of the reasons we’re so interested in training doctors (is that) 90% of doctors stay where they did residency,” Carpenter said.

A new health center also is being planned in Honokaa, where HKH currently rents space in Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua from the Hawaii Health Systems Corp.

According to Carpenter, HKH owns an acre of land next to the hospital that has an old and unsalvageable plantation infirmary building which will be demolished and, eventually, replaced with the new facility.

Fundraising efforts currently are underway to finish the site development at the Kohala Club and to demolish and replace the old building in Honokaa.

According to Carpenter, about $500,000 has so far been raised for the Kohala property. Approximately $1 million is still needed to pay off the remaining loan and to “get everything finished.”

HKH said in a November press release that it had raised more than $800,000 to remove the old infirmary building in Honokaa.

According to Carpenter, work on the new Honokaa facility, which is still in the design phase, could take 3-5 years.

Anyone interested in donating to the efforts can contact their local HKH office and will be transferred to make the donation.

“… Our reason for existing is to make the community healthier and there’s a lot of ways to do that,” Carpenter said. ” … We’re looking at every way to make the community healthier. It’s not always Band-Aids and stitches and antibiotics.”

Hamakua-Kohala Health is a federally qualified health center, a designation given to community-based health care providers that receive funds from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to provide primary care services in underserved areas.

HKH accepts patients who are insured, underinsured or who have no insurance.

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“Our goal is to take care of the people in the community and keep them as healthy as possible,” said Carpenter.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.