Little Wahiawa General Hospital has big dreams of transforming Oahu into a medical mecca comparable to Research Triangle Park, N.C. But whether it can attract the partners needed to turn that vision into a reality remains to be seen.
Wahiawa General unveiled plans last month to develop a $500 million healthcare and research park on a 210-acre site in Waipio, a rural area in central Oahu.
Dubbed Pacific Health Community, the massive park potentially could house the University of Hawaii's future medical school, a new 50-bed hospital owned by the Wahiawa Hospital Association, a sports medicine complex, a physical fitness center, research facilities, medical office buildings and a hospice-care center-as well as satellite units set up by Oahu's other existing hospitals.
The not-for-profit Wahiawa association, which owns 69-bed Wahiawa General, has agreed to buy the land from Castle & Cooke Realty for roughly $50,000 per acre. It plans to complete its purchase of the first 80 acres in December for $4 million and to break ground on the fitness center before year-end.
Pacific Health Community stands to not only provide cutting-edge healthcare services to the island's residents but also to attract well-heeled biomedical and pharmaceutical research firms to Hawaii, something the state has been trying to do for years, said Milton Sagon, the hospital association's vice president of development.
"Right now, there is no research in Hawaii. So people earn their (medical) degrees here, then move to the mainland to find jobs," he said. "We want to promote careers for them here on the island."
Sagon said the key to attracting national research firms to the island is to create partnerships among those companies, the university and existing healthcare organizations in the community. He cited examples of successful partnerships, including Research Triangle Park Corp. and its affiliation with area universities and medical centers.
Affiliation talks are not new to Hawaii's healthcare industry, which has been hit hard by rising costs and dwindling reimbursements. Honolulu-based Kapiolani Health, which owns two hospitals on Oahu, is merging operations with Kauai's Wilcox Health System and Honolulu-based Straub Clinic and Hospital. The system's four hospitals hope to cut costs by sharing equipment and facilities. The deal is scheduled to be completed by year-end. But whether Kapiolani and other Oahu hospitals, each faced with its own host of financial challenges, can be enticed to participate in Wahiawa's venture is unclear. In fact, the three organizations specifically mentioned in Pacific Health Community's renderings-Kapiolani, St. Francis Healthcare System and Queen's Health Systems-are all taking a wait-and-see approach.
"As of now, we have no plans to join with them," said Kapiolani spokesman Brian White, adding that the 348-bed, two-hospital system only very recently had learned of the venture.
Likewise, officials at Honolulu-based Queen's Health, the state's largest medical provider, said they had "insufficient information" about the venture to make a decision.
The 556-bed, two-hospital system announced last year that it planned to focus on its core medical services rather than seek new ventures. It exited the health insurance business last year to combat mounting losses.
"It is critical that we make prudent decisions about investing in the organization's future so we can continue to effectively meet the needs of the community," said Gail Tiwanak, Queen's vice president of organizational planning and communication. "Currently, our long-term planning efforts do not include the Pacific Health Community component. However, we will review information as it becomes available."
Multiple goals in the works
St. Francis, which operates two campuses on Oahu, also is preoccupied with its own reorganization efforts. The 249-bed system eliminated a number of services and laid off 150 employees in April.
"We really don't know (what our involvement may be) at this point," said St. Francis spokeswoman Maggie Jarrett, adding that the system had not yet been approached by the Wahiawa association. "Right now, we're busy doing a lot of our own strategic planning for new services at our west campus."
Another key factor in the project's future success is a commitment from the Honolulu-based University of Hawaii to locate its planned $140 million medical school in Waipio, in the central part of the island. University officials say at least three other sites are under consideration.
The medical school has been in its current building since the 1970s and officials say new facilities are needed to attract quality faculty and increase medical research.
Waipio has some merit because of Oahu's predicted population shift in that direction. But gaining the critical support of local doctors, most of whom live and practice close to downtown Honolulu, is uncertain.
The university expects to make its decision by Oct. 1.
Too many hospitals?
Some in the community also question the wisdom of adding to the state's healthcare system when the number of available acute-care beds on Oahu has been steadily growing since the early 1980s.
The most recent figures available from the state Health Planning and Development Agency show that in 1999, Oahu's 27 hospitals had a 63% occupancy rate, down from 79% in 1982.
Providers also raised concerns that before any money is spent on creating new healthcare facilities, other problems-such as the rising number of uninsured-should be tackled.
"It's great to develop things that might be lucrative, but I really think we need to take care of the basics first," said Beth Giesting, director of the Hawaii State Primary Care Association, whose 10 clinics treated more than 72,000 people of limited means last year.
Of those seeking services, 36% were uninsured, and the number is rising. From 1997 to 2000, the number of people without insurance who were seen at the clinics grew 60%, Giesting said.
Still, the Wahiawa Hospital Association is pressing ahead with its plans.
The organization is scheduled to go before the Hawaii State Land Use Commission this month to get a zoning change approval before construction begins. The 210-acre site is zoned only for agriculture.