Primary Care Training Program receives $2M in state budget

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As legislators wrapped up the 2015 session in Honolulu this week, supporters of Hawaii Island’s Primary Care Training Program celebrated the extension of $2 million in the budget for the initiative.

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As legislators wrapped up the 2015 session in Honolulu this week, supporters of Hawaii Island’s Primary Care Training Program celebrated the extension of $2 million in the budget for the initiative.

The line item in the budget, which has been sent to the governor for his approval, includes the same amount of money appropriated for the program’s first academic year through the end of June.

The full operating cost of the program has been estimated to be $3.6 million in the fiscal year beginning in July, and $3.7 million the following year.

Hilo Medical Center, which administers the program, had worked this session with state Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-Hilo, to draft a bill to cover the full cost of the program, but the measure did not make it to a hearing by the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

Hilo Medical Center Interim CEO Dan Brinkman said Friday that the hospital will cover the shortfall, despite the tight budget constraints under which Hawaii Health Systems Corp. currently finds itself operating.

“We were very thankful to get the $2 million,” he said. “… The difference between the funding and the cost of the program will be paid for out of HMC’s operational revenues. We have, our board and our administration, made a commitment to support the program and the training of these residents. … We have to pick our priorities and we have to pay attention to the future. Even though we’ll struggle with meeting the expenses that we currently have, we still have to spend resources on ensuring that there’s future physicians to provide health care to our community.”

Fundraising efforts through the Hilo Medical Center Foundation have supplied nearly $750,000 for the training program since 2009, said Lisa Rantz, the foundation’s executive director, and those efforts will continue as the program approaches having its full contingent of 12 residents.

“I think as we develop the program and we get the next four residents here, it will give legislators the opportunity to interact with the program and get the residents visible. We’ll begin that outreach to other islands like Maui and Kauai as well,” she said.

The new crop of four residents, who are scheduled to begin in July, will be on hand for the June 13 Hilo BrewFest, added Primary Care Training Program Director Dr. Kristine McCoy.

“… There’s been talk about having them in tanks, so people can dunk a doc!” she said with a laugh.

As the current residents near the end of their first year with the program, McCoy said they are gearing up for their third and final licensing exam. One doctor is scheduled to take the exam on Oahu this weekend, while the others will take it in July.

“It’s really been great to see them go through this transformation. They’re really becoming health professionals with that identity. They’re beginning to feel like real doctors,” she said.

The program has been hailed as an important step in addressing the Hawaii’s ongoing health-care provider shortage. Last year, the state lost a total of 92 physicians, mainly due to an improved economic climate allowing for retirement, combined with the increasing requirements of clinical care due to changes in the health-care system.

The physician shortage on the Big Island alone has been estimated at 146, or about 36 percent of the total estimated demand, according to a January report by the University of Hawaii Physician Workforce Assessment Project.

The training program, which is administered by Hawaii Health Systems Corp. at Hilo Medical Center, brings young doctors to Hilo at the very beginning of their careers to work under four physician faculty members.

Studies show that a majority of doctors choose to remain in the areas where they performed their residency training at the end of the three-year period.

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The program is also multi-disciplinary, meaning that in addition to physicians, on-the-job work experience in rural health care is made available to nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and psychologists.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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