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Some lawmakers critical, some OK with hospital changes

Opinions vary on if MMMC should be investigated

In the wake of an outbreak that infected more than 50 patients and staff at Maui Memorial Medical Center, local lawmakers’ opinions have been mixed on whether an investigation should happen.

“I believe it is important to have an in-depth review and investigation from both internal and external entities of what happened at Maui Memorial,” said Central Maui Rep. Troy Hashimoto, whose district includes the hospital. “The results will help to improve procedures not only on Maui but also for other health care institutions statewide.”

Because the understanding of COVID-19 has continued to change, Hashimoto said he is sure “many actions would have been different if we knew back then what we know now.”

“Nevertheless, it is important to get everything sorted out now to prepare for any future spikes in COVID-19 cases,” he said.

Since the state Department of Health declared the cluster closed May 19, hospital officials said they’ve made changes in communication and equipment policies, improved contact tracing methods and repeatedly tested the units where the cluster began.

Sen. Roz Baker, who chairs the Senate’s Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee, said that she has “no intention of asking for any additional investigation” and was satisfied with the changes that the hospital had put in place.

“As you know, the hospital is an affiliate of Kaiser Permanente and KP National has reviewed systems and procedures at the hospital to ensure best practices have been adopted and followed,” Baker said. “An investigation has been concluded. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I know that MMMC/MHS has addressed the concerns and has modified practices and procedures as appropriate.”

But South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger, who was publicly critical of hospital administration as the cluster mounted, believed the root of Maui Memorial’s problems was its “fundamental toxic corporate culture problem.”

“The climate of retribution, threat of termination, unsafe sanitation protocols and substandard pay scales (hospital employees are paid less than those at the other Maui Kaiser facility) have created a climate of no-confidence for the administration by their employees,” she said via email, pointing to the myriad of complaints she’d received from hospital staff during the crisis.

As for whether she planned to seek an investigation, Wildberger said her past experiences with the Department of Health during her advocacy for clean air in South Maui left her with “little confidence that our DOH would do anything beyond promoting spin about this situation.”

Last month, she asked if the Legislature could attach strings to the hospital’s funding and was told that since the Maui delegation had previously lobbied for Maui Memorial to be privatized, all nine lawmakers would need to be unified in support of such a request.

“If the Legislature won’t hold Maui Health System accountable by holding up funding, I think Kaiser needs to come in and fix the fundamental corporate culture problem attached to Maui Health System’s management team,” Wildberger said.

Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, didn’t directly answer questions about whether the Legislature could put conditions on Maui Health’s funding — the Legislature passed an amended budget earlier this month — but said he supports the hospital “and making sure it has the resources to remain open.”

“I don’t want my friends and loved ones to have to travel to Oahu when they need timely medical treatment,” he said. “Rebuilding trust and confidence in our hospital will simply take time.”

He pointed out that Kaiser had sent a national epidemiological team to review the hospital procedures and put best practices in place.

“I have confidence in the fine women and men — our nurses, techs, physicians and support personnel and administrators — who work there,” he said. “While I understand MHS has expanded its communication with its employees — including town halls — to address any concerns that surface, I know the general community has questions and will continue to have questions about what occurred. I hope MHS will take the opportunity to frankly discuss how it dealt with the cluster.”

Keith-Agaran added that DOH has its “hands full” with the response to COVID-19 and the reopening of the economy “and should continue to concentrate on that important mission.”

Moving forward, it will be critical for the hospital to improve its internal and external communication and the distribution of protective equipment for frontline employees, Hashimoto said.

“I recognize there are challenges at the hospital, but it is my commitment to help work through them thoughtfully,” he said. “At the end of the day, Maui Memorial is our only acute care facility on Maui, and there are so many frontline professionals working hard to help the community when we need it most. Frank discussions will have to take place between management and employees to ensure that open lines of communication will continue to be fostered.”

Baker declined to answer a question about what the hospital could do to restore trust with both its workers and the community, especially if a second wave of cases arose, “because I do not believe it is appropriate to speculate.”

“As far as I know the hospital has adopted best practices regarding masking, wearing of gowns and other personal protective equipment and the disposal of nonreusable PPE and the disinfecting of any items that are or can be reused,” Baker said. “I also know that MHS has initiated additional communication vehicles with employees — the town halls are one — to create two-way communication with all in the hospital and to address any concerns that surface.”

She said she has confidence in the hospital administration and staff, and that she would have no problem going to Maui Memorial for treatment.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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