A legislative measure requesting $5 million for a memorial on Molokai honoring the lives of about 8,000 Hansen’s Disease patients cleared another hurdle in the Legislature Wednesday.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeStill, there’s some debate among state agencies over who should fund and build the memorial.

The House Culture, Arts and International Affairs Committee voted unanimously to move Senate Bill 3338 forward, but not without some resistance from the state Department of Health.

Glenn Wasserman, the head of the Communicable Disease & Public Health Nursing Division, told lawmakers that he personally supports the idea of the project but the funding should not be in the hands of the DOH.

He suggested that a revision be made so that it is instead a capital improvement project because the state Department of Accounting and General Services, which typically handles construction projects, would have more “technical expertise” in its development.

While the DOH is the current governing body of the remaining Kalaupapa residents, Barren Chan, who runs the Hansen’s Disease Branch for the DOH, said that he believes the department’s expertise lies in health care, not construction.

Kalaupapa, Molokai. January 2021
State agencies are debating who should take the lead on building a memorial to Hansen’s Disease patients on Molokai. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The idea for the memorial first surfaced in the early 2000s. And the Department of Health provided written testimony for a 2020 hearing that said it supported the intent of building this memorial as long as the appropriations did not displace priorities in Gov. David Ige’s budget. Now, two years later, the DOH has shifted its stance about taking on full responsibility for the project.

DeGray Vanderbilt, secretary of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, said he has attended every hearing for SB 3338 since the start of the 2022 session and was confused by Wasserman’s statement.

Other concerns about the project were raised by Rep. Gene Ward, who expressed reservations about the amount of visitors the memorial might attract. Some advocates have proposed that the memorial be located on Oahu instead, to prevent the potential congestion of tourists on Molokai, drawn to the memorial.

Vanderbilt said that he doesn’t see that concern as legitimate, because the island gets fewer than 100 visitors per day.

“It’s really for the descendants,” Vanderbilt said. “It’s just a different feeling, and it’s a place where people can find closure.”

Rep. Linda Clark, who represents Molokai, said that she has a personal connection to the Kalaupapa Memorial.

“I definitely support Kalaupapa. Actually, my grandmother is buried down there. So yeah, they definitely have my support,” Clark said.

Lawmakers have not yet decided how much money, if any, should go toward funding the memorial. SB 3338 now moves to the House Finance Committee.

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