The Office of Hawaiian Affairs wants the state to improve its data collection for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

A resolution backed by OHA calls for several public agencies, including county police departments, to release disaggregated data on Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders. The proposal is part of OHA’s 2021 legislative package and is awaiting introduction by House Speaker Scott Saiki.

The measure also calls for a task force to analyze and provide recommendations on how the state collects, processes, retains and shares demographic data.

The legislative effort comes months after OHA’s criticism of the Department of Health’s COVID-19 data prompted the state to release detailed coronavirus case data by race and ethnicity.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs signage.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs wants better data collection for Native Hawaiians. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“The recovery and resilience of our Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and overall communities are dependent upon timely, clear, and detailed data that consistently disaggregates Native Hawaiians from other Pacific Islanders in order to better advance the state’s public health and social determinants of health goals much more effectively and efficiently in the 21st century,” the resolution says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Hawaii at first combined Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders into one category when reporting coronavirus cases.

That gave the impression that Native Hawaiians were suffering at disproportionately high rates. But once the two groups were disaggregated, the data showed Native Hawaiians were actually much less likely to get COVID-19 than the general public.

“Over the last several months we have really reached a breaking point of what can happen when you don’t have the necessary data that you need,” Kaimaile Maldonado from OHA told Civil Beat in an interview.

Hawaii now is the only state that disaggregates Native Hawaiians from other Pacific Islanders in its COVID-19 data. But OHA and other advocates say the pandemic revealed the gaps in data collection and underscored how the state doesn’t have a coordinated policy for collecting data on Native Hawaiians.

While agencies might gather data about Native Hawaiians, there’s a lot of variation in terms of how the race and ethnicity question is asked, what responses are available and how the data is maintained, Maldonado said.

“When we get the data we can’t ever be sure that we’re talking about the same population,” she said. “It’s not so much that it’s not necessarily being collected, it’s that everybody does it in a different way and that leads to results that are confounding.”

A 2012 push by OHA to mandate better data collection was unsuccessful. That’s one reason why OHA is pursuing a resolution this year instead of a bill, which would impose a legal data collection requirement instead of requesting information.

“What we learned from that experience was that essentially in order for this to really work there needs to be institutional buy-in from each of the agencies that’s participating,” she said.

The resolution specifically calls for disaggregated data from the Department of Health, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, Department of Human Services, county police departments and the Judiciary.

A study from the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center found the Judiciary maintains no race data and some segments of the Health Department provide very detailed race and ethnicity data.

The Honolulu Police Department’s data on how officers use force indicates that people who are categorized as Native Hawaiian or another Pacific Islander ethnicity are more likely to be subjected to force by an officer. But the agency doesn’t disaggregate the data further.

OHA’s resolution says the lack of timely and detailed data has stymied efforts to effectively address the pandemic’s negative impacts on Pacific communities.

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who leads the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, hosted a recent informational briefing on data collection for Native Hawaiians this month. She said she hasn’t reviewed OHA’s resolution yet but thinks the issue is important.

“If Native Hawaiians aren’t properly counted then they’re going to miss out on resources that are intended for them from county, federal and state governments,” she said. “We really do need to improve the outreach and the way that we account for Hawaiians in our state and beyond.”

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