Time is ticking: Deadline for bill to secure Makalei ambulance nearing

  • Makalei Fire Station. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • An ambulance leaves the Kailua Fire Station. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Time is ticking for a bill to secure funding for an ambulance to be stationed at Makalei Fire Station, and it doesn’t look like it has a promising future.

Senate Bill 2618 was introduced by Sens. Dru Kanuha, D-Kona, Ka‘u. with Lorraine Inouye, D-North Hawaii, Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, and other Oahu and Maui lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill. It seeks appropriations to establish and fund one advanced life support ambulance based at Makalei in North Kona, including acquisition of a vehicle, equipment and personnel cost.

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It passed the first reading on Jan. 21 and was referred to hearing before the committees on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health and Ways and Means. To remain alive this legislative session, the bill needs to be heard and passed by the Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health by Feb. 14, or it will die. No hearings have been scheduled as of press time Friday.

The bill states in part that the population of the area has significantly increased over the years, which has corresponded with a steady increase in calls for emergency medical services. For many residents in the area, primary care services are as far as 30 miles away.

The closest ambulance-equipped fire station is 8 miles away in Kailua-Kona.

The Makalei area is serviced by the Makalei Fire Station, which opened in late 2012, but it doesn’t have an ambulance. A California donor was prepared to gift an ambulance to Makalei years ago, but eventually withdrew the offer a couple of years back because of a lack of funding to staff the vehicle.

This is not the first attempt to fund an ambulance for Makalei. It has been deja vu every legislative session since the Makalei Fire Station opened, with bills in both chambers dying in committee.

Last year, at the request of the state Department of Health, legislators shelved a bill that would have funded two ambulances for Hawaii Island, including one at the Makalei Fire Station and one in Pahoa.

That’s because money was already allocated by the 2018 Legislature for an ambulance in Puna, and the state Department of Health wanted to first focus on getting that operation up and running — and funded for future years.

Even though the Puna ambulance is still being built, emergency rescue personnel are manning the Pahoa station with a vehicle from the department’s back-up fleet, however funding was only allocated through 2020. The Department of Health is requesting allocation from the Legislature this session to continue funding that station, but it has not yet been secured.

“An ambulance is not a resource that you can ‘wait on,’ because travel time to a hospital can often determine life or death for someone who urgently needs care. Establishing an ambulance to serve Makalei and the greater North Kona area will greatly improve emergency care capabilities and access to quality health care,” Kanuha said. “Introducing SB2618 during the 2020 Legislative Session provides the opportunity to have a productive discussion and, hopefully, we can create a plan on how to best support the growing need for emergency care services in our community.”

But the Department of Health doesn’t see a need for an ambulance for the North Kona fire station.

“We understand the wish for adding a Makalei unit. We recently reviewed the Makalei patient volume. The patient volume is very low. We will continue to discuss the situation,” Dr. Alvin C. Bronstein, Department of Health Emergency Medical Services &Injury Prevention Systems Branch chief, said in an emailed response.

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He indicated the DOH is working to secure funding for ambulances already in service throughout the state and not looking to add anything new.

It costs about $1.5 million to fund a unit for the first year, and $1.1 million for recurring years.

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