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Kaiser shutdown of some services worries workers

Gastrointestinal and ambulatory surgeries at clinic on block

The Kaiser Permanente Wailuku Clinic, shown in a photo from its website, will be shutting down its gastrointestinal and ambulatory surgery services. Workers and others in the community expressed their concerns at a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday. KAISER PERMANENTE photo

Financial instability and the outsourcing of health care services are among the biggest concerns to the nearly 30 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente’s Wailuku Medical Clinic, who are on the chopping block.

Their concerns were expressed Wednesday night at a virtual town hall meeting about announced cuts to gastrointestinal and ambulatory surgery services at Kaiser’s Wailuku Clinic. The event with 100 people logging in was organized by the unions representing workers.

Kaiser announced the reductions earlier this month — a move that would eliminate 11 staff and technician positions and 17 registered and licensed practical nurses. The cuts, which will remove several operating rooms from Maui’s health care system, will result in those services being transferred to operating rooms at Maui Memorial Medical Center, operated by a Kaiser affiliate and up the road from the Wailuku Clinic.

“The first thing I want to say before I get going is that I love Kaiser, I love the care that they’ve given me, I love working for them,” said Michele Bausch, a registered nurse at the ambulatory center and a Kaiser member. “It’s just been wonderful all these years, so it’s just such a big surprise to me that this is happening like this.

“We need continuity of care, we need to be involved, we need transparency. I feel like dissolving our departments does not meet the mission statement and the promises Kaiser made to employees, to the community, and to myself.”

Those logging in included county and state officials and health care professionals. There have been more than 2,000 views of the meeting on the Facebook Live video as of Thursday afternoon.

The Hawaii Nurses and Healthcare Professionals Union represents about 950 Kaiser Permanente registered nurses, nurse practitioners and respiratory therapists in the state, including 75 on Maui. Unite Here Local 5 represents approximately 1,900 employees in Hawaii — 220 on Maui.

Although there hasn’t been a definitive date mentioned, union representatives said they believe the cuts will be implemented mid-October.

Bausch and other health care providers expressed concern about being able to financially support themselves and their families on Maui if they cannot find similar employment opportunities elsewhere.

Susannah Evangelista, a longtime Maui resident, Kaiser member and gastroenterology registered nurse, said she’s “very proud of the work they do at the gastroenterology department” but not with Kaiser’s unilateral decision that will impact the community.

“I’m concerned about them because having colonoscopies or having procedures is important to their health care,” said Evangelista. “For myself, I’m concerned about losing my job during this time. I’m the sole breadwinner for my family. My husband lost his job due to the COVID pandemic.”

Worried patients have been calling the department about the potential outsourcing to Maui Memorial and have been requesting appointment cancellations, she added.

“As of now with the resources we have, we can give appropriate care for patients,” Evangelista said. “I am concerned about what our scheduling will be like if we move to the hospital. We need more access to care, not less.”

Bausch said “many of us do pick Kaiser” because most services are conveniently located in the same area for a timely visit. This includes a primary care provider, a blood lab, pharmacy and X-ray lab.

As a gastrointestinal registered nurse and breast cancer survivor, Barbara Sullivan said that she chose Kaiser as her health care provider for its “one-stop shop” qualities.

“This was a surprise to us, both unions, and to the workers,” said Eric Gill, financial secretary and treasurer for Unite Here Local 5. “We have complained to Kaiser about their intention to not follow through with the actions and procedures built into our contracts with them.”

Gill said Wednesday night that Kaiser had made a written agreement to try to expand clinical service lines, upgrade facilities and equipment, improve continuity of care and reduce wait times, but they “should try harder.”

Other health care providers chimed in during the town hall meeting. They questioned how Maui Memorial, which could quickly become overwhelmed in the event of a spike in COVID-19 cases, would be able to pick up additional gastroenterology and ambulatory appointments.

The return of tourists will further tax health care services, they said.

When Jamie Roth, a 17-year registered nurse at the Wailuku Clinic surgery center, first started working for Kaiser, the facility was using one operating room. Overtime health care workers started using a second operating room to meet the demand.

“Nowadays I feel like we’re using both ORs more than half of the week every week, so that’s a lot of cases,” he said. “So I’m wondering, I believe the hospital has six ORs, and based on what we’re doing now and in the future, Kaiser is going to need two ORs everyday up at the hospital.

“Can they do it?”

Local 5 organizing director Daniel Kerwin said that it was the unions’ understanding that Kaiser wants to outsource services due to “structural deficiencies” at the gastroenterology and ambulatory surgery centers at the Wailuku Clinic.

According to Kerwin, Kaiser claimed that the state Department of Health inspected the clinic in April 2019 and pointed out the deficiencies. DOH checked with Kaiser again in March to find out how the health care provider was planning to fix the problem.

“Keep in mind, that they did not tell the workers or the unions until August 2020, so that’s 16 months after the date they claimed to have been notified after two alleged engagements with DOH,” he said.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, who was on the Zoom meeting, said that Kaiser health care workers “have always shown me great respect and great compassion during those times of need.”

A 40-year Kaiser member, Victorino said “what Kaiser themselves are doing in a sense really needs to be looked into; they’re interested in trying to move things around, but I think when you hurt people and their jobs and also the services that Kaiser has been renowned for, that’s not very good.”

In a previous statement to The Maui News, Kaiser said that these proposed changes would alleviate the financial challenges associated with major renovation costs to the current standing facility, as well as improve efficiency and care.

“This decision was not taken lightly but is in the best interests of our members on Maui and the long-term future of our organization,” the statement said.

More virtual meetings are being planned. In the meantime, two public events are set for Monday to raise awareness of Kaiser Permanente’s outsourcing efforts and to support local health care professionals. A sign waving event is set outside the Wailuku Clinic and a caravan beginning at War Memorial Stadium will roll down Kaahumanu Avenue and drive past the hospital.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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