Let's use stimulus to make Hawaii more competitive


POSTED: Sunday, March 08, 2009

Hawaii is set to receive millions in stimulus funding. We have an opportunity to prepare not just for today but for the future.

As our government finalizes the details of the economic stimulus package — the formally named American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — we must all put some serious thought to how the stimulus can be used to better Hawaii.

Our state stands to receive $678 million in stimulus funds from the federal government, which the White House says will save or create about 15,000 jobs in Hawaii alone. With tourism falling to lows not seen since 9/11 and a $1.4 billion gap in state revenues, this infusion is needed.

The real question is: How should we spend it? There's a lot of discussion around the country about using the stimulus to improve our physical infrastructure. Indeed, the stimulus includes more than $125 million in highway funding for Hawaii. We should improve our roadways, but that's not enough. The forthcoming stimulus funds must be applied to projects that prepare our state to compete in the 21st century.

A recent study by IBM and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates that a $30 billion investment in three areas — “;smart”; electrical grids, health care information technology and broadband technology — could create more than 900,000 jobs in the U.S. in a year. Just as important, the projects would help make the country better able to compete on a world scale and ignite innovation right here in Hawaii.

Take investments in health care technology, for example. The stimulus includes $20 billion for information technology such as electronic medical records to lower the cost and improve the quality of health care services.

Hawaii, already among the best in the nation when it comes to health care access, would profit enormously from spending on technologies like electronic medical records. These records eliminate the paper-based files that are typically difficult to share among assorted medical providers, driving up both costs and medical errors.

By consolidating medical data in secure electronic files, doctors gain more complete knowledge about their patients to devise the most effective treatments. Electronic medical records also can provide more insight into patient risk factors, so chronic illness can be better prevented.

New jobs would be created not only by the hospitals and health care providers that install electronic records, but also in related areas like medical research, drug discovery and home medical monitoring.

Also consider smart grids, which use digital sensors to help utilities better gauge and control energy flow across the power grid. These “;intelligent”; grids not only prevent power outages and allow consumers to better manage personal energy use but also are more able to accommodate sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

The stimulus package includes $30.3 million for energy improvements in Hawaii. As every Hawaii resident with a power bill knows, our state has the highest electricity rate in the country — more than three times the national average. A commitment to smart grids could ease our high energy costs while providing a boost to Hawaii's renewable-energy companies. More reliable power also would help put an end to islandwide power outages like the one we experienced back in December.

Finally, broadband funding would be a boon for Hawaii. According to a recent report, Hawaii ranks last among states in median download speed at 2 megabits per second, compared to 2.3 mbps nationally.

A high-speed communications network is vital to business and tourism in Hawaii. The stimulus package includes $7 billion to improve broadband deployment across the U.S. Hawaii should qualify for federal assistance in coping with the islands' unusual challenge of connectivity.

Other states are making these investments, and we can't allow ourselves to fall behind. Putting the stimulus to work to drive better health care, communications and energy management in Hawaii will make our state more competitive — and an even better place to live.



George R. Ariyoshi, former governor of Hawaii, is chairman and Lambert P. Onuma is president and CEO of Convergence CT, a health care informatics company in Honolulu.