Another push for a new hospital in North Kona

  • James Lee

  • Dru Kanuha

  • Kona Community Hospital. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

Legislators are pushing forward the conversation about constructing a new hospital in North Kona with a pair of resolutions requesting the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation conduct a feasibility study.

Senate Resolution 53 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 35 were introduced Thursday calling for the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation (HHSC) to convene a task force to assess the practicality of constructing a new hospital in North Kona. Big Island Sens. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka‘u) and Lorraine Inouye (D-North Hawaii) are among the co-intruders with Sen. Laura Acasio (D-Hilo) as a co-sponsor on both resolutions.

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“Providing for better access to health care has been a priority of mine, and I just want to continue to this thing forward and make it happen,” said Kanuha, who added he wants to move the decades-old conversation of constructing a new hospital in the area forward.

As evidenced by the number of homes on the slopes and vehicles on the road, the North Kona district has seen an increase in population over the years that has corresponded with a steady increase in the need for convenient access to medical services that has resulted in a “severe shortage of medical care and hospital services,” the resolutions state.

In addition, the growth has shifted the population northward and away from Kona Community Hospital in Kealakekua, prompting the need for a new facility closer to the new urban core of Kailua-Kona, the resolutions state.

All of that has been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has raised concerns that hospitals on the island “will reach capacity and have insufficient resources to adequately respond.”

The two West Hawaii districts are served solely by the HHSC-operated Kona Community Hospital, a 94-bed facility located in Kealakekua, just north of the boundary for the two districts. The hospital, which was founded in 1914, has operated there since the building was constructed in 1975 with a planned capacity of 90 beds.

In the hospital’s 2020 annual report, there were 3,250 admissions, 19,210 patient days, 458 births and 20,596 emergency room visits recorded in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020. In fiscal year 2010, the hospital saw 2,803 admissions, 15,875 patient days, 489 births and 17,580 emergency room visits.

Though the numbers have continued to increase, the facility has not seen the addition of new beds since the early 2000s when 24 beds were added, bringing the total count to 94.

At that time, the U.S. Census population of the North Kona and South Kona districts was 37,132, equating to about one bed per 395 residents. Today, with a combined 54,369 residents, there’s one bed per 578 people.

That’s a decrease from 2.53 beds per 1,000 people to 1.72 beds per 1,000 people. Hilo Medical Center currently has 192 beds, or about one bed per 527 persons or about 1.9 beds per 1,000 people.

According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. had an average of 2.9 beds per 1,000 residents in 2017. Some countries, like Japan, Korea and Monaco and Belarus, reported at least 10 beds per 1,000 people.

Both resolutions have been referred to the Committee on Health for consideration. The resolutions would not have the force and effect of law, unlike a bill, but they do request or urge an action, such as a study and report to the Legislature.

Because the Senate Concurrent Resolution represents the entire Legislature, it must pass a vote on the floor of each chamber to be adopted. The Senate Resolution would only require a single Senate floor vote.

If adopted, the task force would include a representative from the state Senate and House; the director of the Department of Health; the CEO of the West Hawaii Region of the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation; a member of the West Hawaii Regional Health System Board of Directors; and any other representatives of the HHSC West Hawaii Region CEO. The West Hawaii Region CEO would also serve as chairperson of the task force.

The first meeting is requested to be held no later than June 1, 2021, and to submit a report of its findings to the Legislature prior to the opening of the 2022 session.

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Jim Lee, CEO of the HHSC’s West Hawaii Region, said hospital leadership and the Board of Directors appreciate the legislators commitment to improving the health care system in West Hawaii.

“Because the needs of our current hospital facility are so great, meeting the future healthcare needs of the community is always at the forefront of our thoughts. Whether data is gathered via a task force, or a community needs assessment, studying the feasibility of building a new hospital is an important step to plan for the future,” said Lee, noting he just learned about and was reviewing S.C.R. No 53 and S.R. No 35.

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