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Star Advertiser Editorial: Open Hawaii State Hospital

October 30, 2021

Updated 12:51 am

The Hawaii State Hospital is seen during a media tour on May 26.

What a disappointment. What a waste. What is going on?

A brand-spanking-new psychiatric facility at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe was completed several months ago but stands empty as the Department of Health and the union representing most of the facility’s staff work out a way to safely run the place.

Seems a little late for a process that should’ve been done by now. But, as always, there are reasons.

The understandable one is that a state hiring freeze was just lifted in April, and it has been tough to fill the 127 approved positions in that time, given the nationwide labor crunch.

Less fathomable is a concern raised by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which maintains that the new facility is more like a prison than a treatment center — and needs to be staffed with that as the focus. It’s a pivotal difference, and has become a major factor delaying the opening of the new building.

The obvious question, though: How did things get this far with such a wide gulf in fundamental principle unresolved?

The new facility has space for 144 patients, with athletic courts and areas for patients to relax and recharge. It is designed with security in mind, from hundreds of digital cameras to elevators that can keep staff separate from dangerous patients. HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira says it also needs trained correctional officers, similar to a prison.

One of a state’s most arduous tasks is to care for mentally ill individuals who could have committed crimes from misdemeanors to murder. It’s a dangerous mix that requires therapeutic care balanced with security. This building is a crucial addition to the aging hospital campus, which by its own admission was in crisis when it comes to ensuring security for its 200-plus patient population.

Funding for the $160 million project was approved in 2016, but planning goes back a decade before that, when a new master plan was conceived for the hospital, with the new facility as its cornerstone.

Both Perreira and the Health Department say progress is being made — finally — with Ted Sakai, former director of the Department of Public Safety, now on board as a consultant.

Given the stakes, and with the head start these players had, it seems inconceivable to have finally reached building completion — yet be unable to place patients in any of the rooms. The need is urgent; let’s get this resolved and start using the hospital.

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