Roslynn Pascua lives in Wahiawa but when she got sick in January, she asked her husband to drive her to the Waianae community health center for care.
“I went to Waianae because I was told they would provide services for me,” said Pascua, who does not have health insurance. Her situation makes it difficult for her to receive affordable care in her hometown of Wahiawa, she said.
The 50-mile trip took Pascua an hour each way and required her to schedule her appointment on her day off from working as a passenger service agent.
But despite the inconvenience, Pascua considers herself one of the lucky ones. That’s because she has a car and can drive somewhere else for medical help if she has to.
Pascua is one of thousands of uninsured people living in Wahiawa, many of whom travel for hours on The Bus to health centers in town or in Waianae to access the services they need.
But members of the grassroots organization Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) are trying to change that. They have been working for the past year to lay the groundwork for a new community health center, with funding from the Health Resources & Services Administration through the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
On Aug. 30, United Healthcare Community Plan of Hawaii donated $10,000 to the group to help the project push forward.
“The donation will go toward helping the Wahiawa Community Health Center move from an idea to a reality,” said David W. Heywood, vice president of the health insurance company.
Bob Nakata, vice chair of the health committee at FACE, said the money will help cover community outreach and the cost of applying for additional grants to build the new facility.
The donation coincides with the end of the HRSA grant on Aug. 31, which allowed FACE to conduct extensive outreach to determine the community’s health needs. The group is working on synthesizing their findings into a report that is due on Nov. 30.
But according to FACE member Rev. Fran Wiebenga, the bottom line is clear.
“There is no question in anyone’s mind that there is a need for a community health center,” Wiebenga said.
Through the federal grant, which lasted from September 2011 to August 2012, FACE members conducted extensive research, including attending neighborhood board meetings, hosting community events and reaching out to immigrants, seniors and residents of public housing.
“We found there’s a lot of people here without health insurance, who have low income, who could really use the services of a community health center,” Wiebenga said.
The percentage of people living below the poverty line in Wahiawa is higher than the state average, and the per-capita income is lower than the state average, according to U.S. Census figures. The region between Wahiawa and the North Shore contains nearly 10 percent of Oahu’s homeless population.
“One important finding is that when we were asking people in the community what they saw as the top health and social services they needed, it was things like jobs and housing rather than specific health things,” said Cortney Midla, a member of FACE who wrote her public health master’s degree thesis on the topic of healthcare in Wahiawa.
Midla said this information was gathered from focus groups and more than 900 surveys of Wahiawa residents.
Mary Talon, a registered nurse and a member of the FACE health committee, said the group is hoping to model the new community health center after Waianae’s, which not only provides comprehensive care to low-income people but also is the largest private employer on the leeward coast.
Talon said she’s hopeful that the new community health center could help bring jobs to Wahiawa in addition to filling the gaps in health services.
Wahiawa is currently served by Wahiawa General Hospital, which caters to about 110,000 people in Central Oahu and the North Shore region and has suffered from significant debt over the years. The hospital’s CEO Don Olden did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment for this story.
A story in the Honolulu Advertiser reported that budget constraints led the hospital to cut its maternity department in 2007, limiting the services available to Wahiawa residents. An exodus of doctors has further worsened conditions. According to Talon, 200 doctors have left the rural region in the past 10 years.
“People here travel to Waianae and Waikiki for health care,” Talon said. “They spend two hours on a bus or longer. When you try to get an appointment, you can’t get an appointment.”
One resident who described the problems with lack of nearby health care is a 70-year-old woman who identified herself only as India. She says she’s lived in Wahiawa for 40 years.
“Yesterday [Sept. 6] I had to go all the way to Castle Hospital and all the way back,” India said, noting the trip took about an hour each way.
She said she has tried many times to find a doctor in Wahiawa but is consistently told that they are not taking new patients.
“I get tired of the elongated drives,” she said. “They are exhausting to me … I just do whatever is necessary, but it would be really nice if the people [who provide me health care] were in Wahiawa.”
Despite the daunting and time-consuming nature of the project, FACE members said that the result has been rewarding.
“It gave us the opportunity to hear everyone’s needs and trials,” Pascua said. “We are really looking at the center to be the heart of the community, not just a health center. When the community is healthy, everything else falls in place.”
Midla agreed, and said this is reflected in the community health center’s name, Wahiawa Center for Community Health.
The project has received widespread support from government officials, community group, and health providers, including Wahiawa General Hospital. Twenty-three groups, including the hospital, wrote letters of support for the FACE’s HRSA grant application.
Nakata said the latest donation from United Healthcare Community Plan of Hawaii follows similar donations from Ohana Care and Aloha Care.
“It’s rare that you see a community get behind something the way Wahiawa has gotten behind this effort,” Nakata said.