The Hawaii Department of Health wants taxpayers to fund more than 20 new full-time employees to address long-standing staffing shortages and pay more than $23 million to fix infrastructure inadequacies as the coronavirus pandemic continues to strain the agency.

Resources have been pulled from throughout the department to help the state address Covid-19 prevention, testing and positive case investigations, Health Director Libby Char told state lawmakers Wednesday during a budget hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The department has coordinated the administration of more than 2.6 million vaccine doses and supported 116,000 people in Hawaii who have tested positive since March 2020.

“As we continue to do this day in and day out on weekends and on every single holiday, we are growing weary,” Char said as she presented the department’s supplemental budget request for fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1. “But we persist in our mission.”

Department of Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Libby Char.
Hawaii Health Director Libby Char appealed to legislative leaders for more money to offset the agency’s response to the crises posed by the Covid pandemic and drinking water contamination at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The legislative session opens Wednesday and runs through early May.

Restoring safe drinking water to residents affected by a water contamination crisis caused by petroleum leaks at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility and addressing the cleanup of the aquifer has also put a strain on the department.

So has the economic downturn brought about by the pandemic.

“We’ve been fighting these battles with one arm tied behind our back while public health is chronically underfunded (and) our shoestring infrastructure is being stretched to its breaking point,” Char said.

“Our supplemental budget request simply asks the Legislature to help us continue to provide essential services,” she added. “Priority items include literally keeping the lights on at the state lab and some resources to keep the Hawaii State Hospital patients and staff safe, and then also some help with staffing for key infectious disease response positions.”

The department’s supplemental operating budget request would add $36 million for health programs, nearly $4 million for environmental protection programs and $1.5 million for social services, resulting in a total operating budget of $1.8 billion.

Included in the request is nearly $3.5 million for additional security guards, building maintenance contracts and utility funding to outfit the new and larger Hawaii State Hospital, a $160 million psychiatric facility with 144 beds in Kaneohe.

The facility, unveiled to legislators and news media in May, was supposed to start taking in patients in August. But it still remains vacant.

The new Hawaii State Hospital building is complete with electric car charging stations in the parking lot, a metal detector at the entrance and even machines that can detect if someone is carrying a pen. But it remains vacant. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2021

At the hearing Wednesday, Sen. Kurt Fevella questioned the months-long lag in getting the Hawaii State Hospital operational.

“All around the state we’re having a lot of mental illness problems,” he said. “When are you guys going to push this through?” 

Marian Tsuji, deputy director of Behavioral Health Administration, said the department is still working on attaining certification, correcting “facility issues,” and developing policies to govern the hospital’s operations.

Other funding requests would keep up with increased electricity costs at the State Laboratory Division, establish a DUI Laboratory for drug and alcohol toxicology testing and replace the department’s 20-year-old core vital records system used to provide residents with certified copies of their vital records.

A request for $516,000 would fund three staff positions in the Office of Medical Cannabis Control and Regulation to ensure that products dispensed by medical cannabis licensees do not pose a health risk to patients, as well as education to prevent unintentional intoxication of children, impaired driving and other risks of cannabis use.

Another $1.5 million would be funneled toward the state-run Kupuna Care program that provides in-home services to elders.

The budget proposal also requests more than $9.3 million in funding for capital improvements at Kalaupapa Settlement, including $7.8 million to close landfills, $945,000 to re-roof a warehouse and care facility and $580,000 to remove underground fuel storage tanks.

By law, the DOH provides lifetime care for fewer than 10 former Hansen’s disease patients in their 80s and 90s who are cured of the disease and have chosen to remain residents of the peninsula even after the department in 1969 officially stopped forcing leprosy patients to isolate there.

“The economic downturn caused by the pandemic reduced general fund resources available to meet the increased demand for mental health services, pandemic response support and outreach, and the ongoing day-to-day operations of the DOH,” according to an excerpt from the budget proposal.

The department includes more than 100 programs and more than 2,000 staff members dedicated to improving Hawaii’s health and environment.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee says it will be considering the DOH budget request along with requests from all the other state departments when it works on the budget in the coming session between now and the end of session in early May.

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