Dr. Jeffrey Okamoto, a pediatrician who works to improve the lives of islanders with developmental and intellectual disabilities, has been selected for a prestigious Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation Public Policy Fellowship.
He will leave next month for the intensive yearlong fellowship — an opportunity to participate in public policy development. He is one of only three people in the U.S. chosen for the Kennedy program this year.
Okamoto expects to work in the office of Iowa U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He said he does not know which bills he’ll be working on, "but it should be an exciting year."
He said he will visit Hawaii U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka.
"I’m really hopeful to learn a lot about the process in D.C. They (the foundation) did tell me to use my patience in the process," he said.
Married with a 12-year-old son, Okamoto is a professor at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Pediatric Specialty Center at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children.
He flies every other month to Molokai to care for children with developmental and behavioral challenges at a clinic supported by Kapiolani Medical Center.
He said many improvements have occurred in public policies affecting Hawaii residents with such disabilities and he hopes for further improvements, particularly concerning self-determination.
He is interested in how to keep people with intellectual disabilities safe and supported while allowing them to make their own decisions.
Many of the people served by the state Department of Health’s Developmental Disabilities Division, for which he is medical director, are making decisions for themselves, "but they’re not always the best decisions," he said.
The division has about 3,500 clients, of which 2,500 fall under a Development Disabilities/Mental Retardation Home and Community-Based Services Medicaid waiver program, he said. It is not a large number compared to some regions, he said, "but I feel 3,500 is quite a bit of work considering the money and personnel we have."
Hawaii became the first state to enact a law mandating self-determination for people with developmental disabilities and mental retardation in 1998. Services have been provided for them in the community since 1999, when the state closed Waimanalo Training School and Hospital, an intermediate care facility for the mentally retarded.
Okamoto said there has since been "a revolution" in care for this population. "We are one of few states that doesn’t have an institution. …
"A lot of people are working really hard on the population, which is kind of hidden, under the radar," he added.
He said Dr. Gina French, a board-certified pediatrician in developmental behavioral health, will cover his clinic while he is away.
Faculty members and doctors will take over his various other positions.