Gov. David Ige quietly signed four bills into law in the past week, and one of them could help nursing homes in the fight against COVID-19.

While Hawaii has avoided the large clusters of cases at nursing homes seen on the U.S. mainland, there have been several clusters identified in Hawaii care homes. Proponents of the new law, including the state Department of Health, previously told state lawmakers that it could make more funds available for nursing homes.

It’s among measures Ige signed between Aug. 7 and Thursday. Beside the nursing home bill, Ige also signed off on funds for lawsuits brought against the state as well as two other measures involving training fees for contractors and conforming with the Internal Revenue Service code.

Maribel Tan visits the room of Vanesa Lopes, left, and Sadayo Tsuji , center, so she can help Tsuji get up to walk at her care home in Waipahu, HI, Monday, July 20, 2020. Maribel is the president of the Adult Foster Homecare Association of Hawaii and operates a homecare facility in her house. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
A bill lifting a cap on funding for care homes is among the measures Gov. David Ige signed into law this past week. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Act 10, the nursing home bill, is pretty technical. It eliminates the spending cap on a special fund the federal government deposits money into from penalties paid by nursing homes.

While the fund holds more than $1 million, the state was previously able to spend just $30,000 each year.

Rep. John Mizuno said nursing homes have been pushing to eliminate the spending cap, but it flew under most people’s radars in past legislative sessions. At least until the coronavirus arrived.

The DOH said in written testimony to lawmakers in July that it already reached the cap for 2020 but was ready to spend more. Money spent so far was on communication equipment for virtual visits between patients and their families.

In 2020 alone, $178,000 went into the fund, bringing it to more than $1.2 million total, according to DOH. Those funds have to be used to benefit residents, the department said.

Mizuno said removing the cap allows the department to spend every last cent of the fund if it wants to. The Kalihi representative, who’s been a friend to nursing homes and care facilities in past sessions, hopes the money can go toward protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.

While it may not solve all the worries facing care facilities, the new stash of money could be one way to help them.

“We need to have an all-out approach to best protect our people,” Mizuno said.

If the law didn’t pass, the DOH also warned that the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services may stop paying into the fund.

In addition to the bill lifting the spending cap, Ige also signed off on over $2 million worth of legal payments for various legal cases that were settled in the past year.

The cases include the near drowning of a special education student, the sexual assault of a female inmate by an Oahu jail nurse, two crashes on state highways with one of them fatal, and environmental violations for library cesspools.

The payments are packaged in the annual “Claims Against the State” bill. 

The bill also includes about $160,000 worth of checks that had to be reissued. The Attorney General’s Office estimates that about $1.8 million worth of the settlement payments will come directly from department budgets instead of from tax dollars pooled in the general fund.

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