Avalon Health Care and the public authority that operates the Hilo Medical Center, the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., have reached an agreement to transfer management of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home to the East Hawaii Region of the HHSC.

Twenty-six veterans or their spouses have been infected with COVID-19 and died at the Hilo facility since Aug. 28, and Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim has repeatedly called on the state to remove Avalon as the operator of the home.

On Friday afternoon, HHSC announced that “despite many years of successful operations, the recent, unfortunate outbreak of COVID-19 in the facility has caused a reassessment by the East Hawaii Regional Board responsible for the management contract.”

The East Hawaii Region of HHSC consists of Hilo Medical Center, Kau Hospital and the Hale Ho’ola Hamakua.

Sign near the Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home located on the island of Hawaii. No visitor policy due to a surge in COVID-19 cases that killed scores of residents. September 24, 2020
A sign near the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home near Hilo notes the no-visitor policy due to COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Utah-based Avalon Health Care has had the contract to manage Okutsu since it opened in 2007. It is the only state nursing home facility dedicated to caring for Hawaii veterans, and was built using state and federal dollars.

But the facility has had problems ever since it started operating, government inspection reports show. The for-profit nursing home, which has 95 beds, has been fined almost $30,000 since 2018.

“We are humbled and privileged to be entrusted with caring for our veterans,” said Dan Brinkman, CEO of the East Hawaii Region of HHSC. “Over the next several months, we will be collaborating with the Avalon team to safely and effectively complete the transition.”

Allison Griffiths, a spokeswoman for Avalon Health Care Group, said the company “deeply appreciates the service that our nation’s veterans have provided to our country.”

“Throughout the pandemic, Avalon has diligently sought to implement the guidelines of the Hawaii state Department of Health, the CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Avalon has been and continues to be deeply committed to the welfare of all of our residents and will work with HHSC to transition the facility to its leadership.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said Friday in a written statement that “recent reports have shown that Avalon is ill-equipped to operate the veterans home and contain this outbreak. Avalon has also been unwilling to take responsibility for their mismanagement so this was the right decision.”

“What happens next will be critical,” Schatz said. “The transition plan to a new management team must put the health and safety of patients and staff first. HHSC must also ensure that a change in management does not adversely impact staffing and census in other facilities and that all residents of nursing facilities on Hawaii island receive care in the most appropriate setting.”

Schatz called for federal intervention at the veterans home as the outbreak worsened earlier this month, prompting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to send a “tiger team” of about 20 health care professionals to the home to train staff and assist in the operation.

Mayor Harry Kim makes a point to joint WAM Finance Committees about budget issues.
Mayor Harry Kim this week demanded that Gov. David Ige remove Avalon Health Care as the manager of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kim wrote to Ige Monday to demand that Avalon be removed from control of the Okutsu facility, calling the deaths of the veterans “tragic, and unacceptable.”

Kim specifically cited a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs that was released publicly on Sept. 18 that noted failures to properly “cohort” or separate residents who might have been exposed to COVID-19 from those who were not, and also cited a “lack of adequate infection control.”

The VA report concluded that “there was very little evidence of proactive preparation/planning for COVID.” It also identified a variety of problems, including findings that residents sometimes wandered in the facility hallways and did not always wear masks when they were outside of their rooms.

Griffiths issued a written statement earlier criticizing the state response to the outbreak, saying that Avalon was “very disappointed with how politically charged this situation has gotten.”

“The lack of collaboration and support by the Department of Health and other state agencies is unprecedented,” Griffiths wrote. “In every other state in which we operate, the state Department of Health has offered support, guidance, collaboration, PPE, testing, etc. to our facilities as the common goal among all involved is the health and safety of the residents and the community.”

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