Native Hawaiians have the poorest health of any ethnic group in the islands.

That’s been the underlying message of decades of research, from the first Native Hawaiian Health Needs study in 1985 to a recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And it’s why in 2015 the Legislature approved a resolution to create a Native Hawaiian Health Task Force charged with proposing legislation, findings and recommendations to address the problem.

The last time Civil Beat reported on the task force, its members were racing to meet a challenge from legislators in January to devise specific legislation to support their general recommendations.

Keawe‘aimoku Kaholokula, co-chair of the task force, said it wants to get more Native Hawaiians into health professions and health sciences.

Olivia Peterkin/Civil Beat

None of its proposed bills were passed last session, and now the group is looking to establish a more permanent presence to continue advocating for its proposals by calling itself a “coalition” instead of a task force.

According to a report by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders deal with chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma and hypertension more than any other ethnic group in the state. It found that:

  • 31 percent of Native Hawaiians have asthma
  • 44 percent of Native Hawaiians are obese
  • 19 percent of Native Hawaiians have a heart disease
  • 22 percent of Native Hawaiians have diabetes

At the January meeting, legislators said the prevalence of Native Hawaiian health disparities required more than recommendations, it required “actionable legislation,” according to Sen. J Kalani English.

But at that point, task force members had just five days until that session’s deadline for submitting bills.

“It was tremendously stressful, we spent almost every night during the leg session down there getting these bills in and talking to different senators and representatives to garner support,” said Keawe‘aimoku Kaholokula, co-chair of the task force, and professor and chair of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Bills Drafted By The Native Hawaiian Health Task Force

Of the five bills that the task force came up with, Senate Bill 1294 received the most support — it got all the way to the conference committee —  and is slated to be reintroduced in the 2018 session.

“I think most everyone supported the concept, but unfortunately there were insufficient funds to allocate toward it,” said Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who helped write four of the five bills.

The bill called for the establishment of a health sciences academy at UH that would focus on Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, and requested that funds be provided from a percentage of the transient accommodations tax.

“Everybody loves TAT, so they kind of had to wait in line,” said Sen. Brickwood Galuteria.

Kaholokula said that since Hawaiian culture is used to promote tourism, it would make sense that some of the taxes connected to the $14 billion industry should specifically benefit Native Hawaiians.

“What’s frustrating I think overall is that these are the right things to do for the right reasons, but yet funding and politics get in the way of the right thing,” Kaholokula said.

At the task force’s presentation to the 2017 Legislature, state senators praised its work but complained that it had not developed more concrete legislative proposals to help Native Hawaiians.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Native Hawaiians have low higher education rates that contribute to their economically disadvantaged status — according to the task force’s report, only 15 percent of Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders have a bachelor’s degree.

The task force believes that the academy would aid in closing the economic gap between Native Hawaiians and other ethnic groups in the state by including culturally relevant resources that would help Native Hawaiian students succeed in a higher education setting.

“It’s a fast-growing area where we continue to be in need and from an economic standpoint, if we can get more Native Hawaiians into health professions and health sciences, it really will address their economic issues going forward,” Kaholokula said.

Senate Bill 1315, which proposed that the cost of cultural activities like hula and paddling be covered by medical insurance, was deferred because task force members needed to do additional research on how it could be implemented.

The bill was based on a study by the UH medical school that found that hula can decrease hypertension.

“In general, there’s a lot of work to be done and we weren’t able to do as much as we would like to,” said Dane Kaohelani Silva, a member of the task force and kumu lomi, or teacher of the traditional form of Hawaiian healing massage.

Silva said that a task force meeting on Oahu inspired the formation of a community health task force on the Big Island that focuses on health issues facing Native Hawaiians in the Hilo area.

At their last meeting in September, Native Hawaiian Health Task Force members decided to drop the words “task force” and tack on “coalition,” signifying their intent to address Native Hawaiian Health issues past the requirement of the resolution that created it.

“The task force has done its job, the resolution was that we provided recommendations at the end of the day that would inform policy,” Kaholokula said. “We did that, but with a coalition we can continue to exist and address these issues.”

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