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Legislators aim to save health services


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POSTED: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Saving Hawaii's human services and health safety net in a turbulent economy is a top challenge this session, say the Legislature's health chairmen.

“;The governor has really shredded the safety net (with budget cuts),”; said Sen. David Ige (D, Aiea-Pearl City), adding that legislators are trying to preserve as many services as possible that have no funding alternative.

His House counterpart, Rep. Ryan Yamane (D, Waipahu-Mililani), likens Hawaii's financial crisis to a trauma patient arriving at the emergency room.

“;We have to focus on what are the major needs of the patient, stop the bleeding and stabilize them,”; he said. “;Once we do that ... we can support the whole patient.”;

Among major concerns are funding for programs such as Healthy Start, a child abuse prevention program, and the network of 14 community health centers.

Lawmakers also are considering bills to restructure the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which has struggled with huge losses in operating 13 public hospitals statewide.

“;We know that we cannot continue to see the increasing general fund support that we have over the last five years,”; Ige said.

Yamane said legislators are working with state departments to define the safety net and how they're responding to critical needs.

“;We don't know where and how far Department of Human Services and Department of Health cuts are,”; he said.

Yamane said collaboration is needed because it's “;a double loss”; if the Legislature funds a program and the governor doesn't release the money. “;It can't be used for anything else.”;

The legislators are hoping a significant increase in federal funds will be available through the stimulus package. “;We want to make sure we are well-positioned to capture that and redirect as many of those funds into the most critical areas,”; Ige said.

Healthy Start, which identifies children at risk for abuse at birth and provides family support services, “;is one of the most successful programs we have ever undertaken,”; Ige said. “;We're one of the leaders in the least incidence of abuse and clearly Healthy Start has a big part of it.”;

Legislators are concerned about deletion of the program's $9.4 million from the executive budget and potential loss of the “;human infrastructure”; developed over the years to support the program, Ige said.

“;If we're successful in reducing child abuse by one child, it's a good thing to pursue, not to mention the fact that our community really realizes a lifetime of savings,”; he said, noting statistics showing prisons are filled with people abused at some time in their lives.

A Health Department proposal to fund the 14 community health centers with cigarette tax revenues instead of state general funds also will receive legislative attention, Ige said.

In allocating part of those taxes to the centers, the Legislature envisioned it as an addition to base state support to help them expand, he said.