As Maui Memorial Medical Center has announced the shutdown of its adolescent behavioral health unit in an attempt to make a dent in a $13 million budget gap this year, the Democratic candidates seeking their party's nomination for the state 6th Senate District seat agree that a public-private partnership is needed to keep public hospitals afloat.
But state Sen. Roz Baker and challenger Terez Amato of Kihei don't necessarily see eye to eye on whom the hospital should partner with.
"I support partnerships with local hospitals that we trust like Hawaii Pacific Health or Queen's (Medical Center) so we can maintain health services for Maui," said political newcomer Amato. "The absolute wrong thing to do is to sell Maui's hospitals to Mainland corporations who have no experience providing health care here or providing a commitment to the people of Maui."
The single parent of four said that "selling our hospitals out . . . would destroy thousands of union jobs and leave our health care and hospital services in the hands of a Mainland corporations."
Maui Memorial Medical Center, the largest hospital within the state-owned Hawaii Health Systems Corp., reportedly engaged in talks of a possible partnership with Arizona-based nonprofit Banner Health last year. But a deal was never made, as lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have allowed for a public-private partnership.
Amato chastised lawmakers for supporting legislation that would have left "our health care and hospital services in the hands of a Mainland corporation." The St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School graduate has pledged not to accept any campaign donations from large corporations or lobbyists.
Editor's note: This story is a continuation of Maui News coverage of contested election races for state and county political offices. The primary election is Saturday. Winners advance to the Nov. 4 general election.
Baker said she agrees that partnering with a local hospital system would be more "comfortable," but she said the state should keep its options open and not rule out Mainland care providers that would be able to provide the capital and cutting-edge technology needed to keep Maui Memorial competitive. (The Maui region of the HHSC also includes Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital.)
"I want the best deal we can get for Maui, whether it's a local company or somebody else," Baker said.
"There's some very good systems on the Mainland that are nonprofit and may be interested, but until we have the appropriate framework and can actually go out and check it out, we're not going to know.
"I want to make sure it's for Maui, for our families," she said.
The veteran lawmaker said measures that would've allowed the hospital to enter into a public-private partnership died in committee during the last two legislative sessions because "many of our Oahu colleagues may not understand why we can't just come to Honolulu for care." Baker said she would fight for emergency funding, as she did last year, to "make sure our clinical services are not lost."
Baker has served in the state Senate for 17 years and chairs the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee.
If re-elected, Baker said she would ensure that projects for which legislation has already been passed, such as Kihei high school and the acquisition of Lipoa Point, become a reality. She would also work to impose more regulations on e-cigarettes, which she says markets its products and flavors toward young people, mostly middle and high school, and can become a gateway into nicotine addiction.
Amato said that, if elected, she would "provide a fresh voice and clear vision for the people of Maui," first and foremost by making sure corporations do not influence her as a state politician. Amato is an advocate for preserving Maui's natural resources, in favor of labeling genetically modified organisms, and a strong proponent of the temporary GMO moratorium, brought forward by the SHAKA Movement, which will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
Baker, on the other hand, said she believes "we need more farmers, not less." As someone who grew up in farming country in Texas, Baker said she appreciates all kinds of agriculture, whether small-scale, organic or other.
"In my mind, there's not one right way to do it," Baker said.
In response to allegations about corporate influence on her decision-making, Baker said, "None of the donations I've ever taken have ever come with any strings. . . . If you look at all the things I've done for Maui, for the state of Hawaii, all the legislation that I've pushed, it's for the people. It's for the community. It's not at the behest of some corporation."
She acknowledged that a small percentage of her campaign donations have come from corporations, including $500 each from Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences. But the majority of the $45,880 in contributions she's received has come from individuals or nonprofit groups.
Amato has received $13,921 in campaign contributions, almost all from individuals.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.
* This story has been corrected