Maui Memorial Medical Center and Kula Hospital & Clinic are seeing an uptick in the use of sick leave by their unionized workers as plans to privatize Maui’s public hospital system advance under the supervision of Gov. David Ige.
Wesley Lo, chief executive officer of the Maui Region of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., said the recent increase in the use of sick days has not posed any threat to patient care, but has been "very challenging" for hospital staffers forced to scramble to cover shifts in some units.
The increase in sick leave use of about 1 to 4 percent as compared with this time last year might sound modest, but Lo said it means the system may need to cover for 40 to 50 employees on some days. To cover the gaps, administrators have been asking employees to work overtime or have been relying on per diem or "traveling" nurses or other contract specialists to fill in, he said.
"Certainly we are getting a lot of sick calls right now," Lo said. "Some of it is going to people who are sick, obviously. Some it is probably, anecdotally, is related to that they’re nervous that they’re going to lose that sick leave benefit."
"We’ve been fortunate that our (patient) census hasn’t been extremely high, but we are getting nervous as census starts creeping up with the sick leave," he said. He said hospital officials began noticing the increase in May and June just after state lawmakers passed the privatization law.
Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said the union is not advocating that its members burn through their sick leave, but said it wouldn’t surprise him if some individual workers decided to use up their sick days before the transition to a private operator.
Employees’ accumulated vacation days must be cashed out by the state when a private operator takes control of the hospital operation, but the state does not cash out sick leave, and accumulated sick days will not transfer to the new operator.
Proposals are due Monday from nonprofit hospital operators that want to to take over the Maui Region facilities, including Maui Memorial, Kula hospital and Lanai Community Hospital. The companies interested in taking control of the hospitals in the Maui Region include Kaiser Permanente, which has more than 52,000 members on Maui, and Hawaii Pacific Health.
Hawaii Pacific Health already operates Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children, Pali Momi Medical Center, Straub Clinic & Hospital and Wilcox Memorial Hospital on Kauai. The Maui hospitals have been exchanging information with Hawaii Pacific Health for many months in anticipation of a possible takeover.
State lawmakers have been frustrated by the operating loses of the statewide network of public hospitals, which have required injections of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds over the years. Privatizing portions of the system is seen as one possible way to save money by reducing the amount of state subsidies required to run the hospitals.
Act 104, signed by Ige this year, requires that Hawaii hospital operators be allowed to compete for the opportunity to run the Maui and Lanai medical facilities. The act assigns Ige the task of leading negotiations for the transition to a public-private partnership, with the help of Maui hospital officials.
The new law was strongly opposed by the United Public Workers union and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which both have members working at the hospitals. In all, Lo said the Maui facilities have about 1,500 employees, and about 98 percent of those are unionized.
The new law guarantees there will be no employee layoffs for six months after any takeover. Hawaii Pacific Health told state lawmakers this year it would commit to retaining all of the Maui employees for six months but no longer.
The United Public Workers union sued the state earlier this month to try to block implementation of the privatization law, arguing that the new law illegally interferes with the union’s binding contracts with the state.
Perreira said misinformation about the transition to a private operator has been coming out of the Maui administration, and that has triggered some "panic" among employees. "I wouldn’t doubt that there are some people who may be drawing conclusions because they’re panicking because of the kind of information they’re getting — or misinformation," he said.
However, Perreira said some workers might actually benefit by continuing to accumulate sick leave. For employees who are vested in the state retirement system, their accumulated sick leave increases their retirement benefits even if they never use it.
Lo said the hospital system is hoping to select a preferred candidate to operate the hospitals by the end of September, and begin negotiations for a takeover. The "dream" is that the two sides will reach a firm agreement by the end of the year, Lo said.
Perreira said he wants the state to release information about the specifics of the proposals from each nonprofit before a final decision is made so Maui residents can find out what services the new operator intends to provide, and which might be curtailed or cut.
"Just like with any other procurement issue, there should be some transparency about what taxpayers are going to pay for," he said.