After standing empty for more than a year, the new Hawaii State Hospital building is tentatively scheduled to begin taking patients on April 13.

The $160 million facility was turned over to the state Department of Health last April, but delays in developing an operating plan and policies and procedures for the new high-tech building were mostly to blame for the long stretch when it stood vacant, said Marian Tsuji, deputy director for Behavioral Health Services Administration.

“I would have to say that we need to take responsibility for that over at DOH,” Tsuji told members of the Senate Health Committee and the House Committee on Health, Human Services and Homelessness at a public hearing on Monday.

“As I indicated to you before, there are a number of things that we should have started while the building was still being built — like an operating plan, start drafting out some policies and procedures — and we didn’t,” Tsuji said.

But she said to the staff’s credit, the Kaneohe facility remained free of Covid.

Patients should be moving into the new, more secure Hawaii State Hospital building in April and May. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2021

The state discovered problems with about 50 out of 85 showers in the new building, including showers where water ponded, and a handful of showers where the floor sloped away from the drain. Those issues were identified more recently, lawmakers were told.

Eric Nishimoto, chief of the project management branch of the state Department of Accounting and General Services, said the shower flaws were identified several months ago, and DAGS instructed the contractor to fix the problem two months ago.

Another problem was the original door handles and door hinges installed in the new facility posed a risk to patients who could use them to hang themselves, an issue that turned out to be a design flaw. Hensel Phelps Construction Co., which won the contract to design and build the psychiatric facility, has been replacing those fixtures.

That particular hazard is not a new issue for Hawaii State Hospital.

The campus received dozens of citations for “ligatures” —  protrusions that patients could use to hang themselves — during an inspection of older buildings in the lower portion of the campus in 2017, according Run Heidelberg, administrator of the Hawaii State Hospital.

Heidelberg explained hospital officials now have $8.9 million earmarked to fix the ligature problem in the older buildings on the campus after the new building opens. Once those fixes are complete, there will be more bed space available for patients, lawmakers were told.

Hospital officials are asking for $5.3 million to install a new fire suppression system for the hospital campus, but Nishimoto said that issue did not contribute to the delays in opening the new building. The fire suppression upgrades are designed to meet Board of Water Supply standards for hospital facilities.

“It’s not that the facility isn’t compliant with anything, or it’s not safe for occupancy, it’s just an improvement to reach that very high standard,” Nishimoto said.

The current schedule calls for patients to move into the third floor of the new building in mid-April, followed by patients who are to occupy the second floor in late April. The first floor, which will be used for intake and to house the patients who require the highest levels of security, should be occupied in May, lawmakers were told.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Jarrett Keohokalole was also hoping to learn more about an escape from the Hawaii State Hospital on March 6, but Health Department staff declined to discuss that incident. Hawaii News Now reported that Andrew Schmitke, 29, was arrested a day after he escaped.

“We requested guidance from our attorney general, and the Attorney General’s office is currently investigating that, so they asked us not to comment on that at this time,” Tsuji said.

Keohokalole described that response as “extremely disappointing.” He suggested the House and Senate committees should have been told before the meeting agenda was published that the department would not discuss the incident.

“That might be more helpful to the public, which is expecting an explanation of what happened with this escape,” he said.

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