Hamakua-Kohala Health has reason to celebrate

May is both American Stroke Month and National High Blood Pressure Education Month. To face these major health issues head on, Hamakua-Kohala Health Center (HKH) will offer free services and activities on May 28 as part of their annual health fair at the Honokaa Sports Complex.

Coincidentally, this year is the Center’s 50th anniversary. A celebration to commemorate the dedication and commitment that doctors, nurses and staff have given to the community over the last five decades is long overdue, according to HKH’s CEO Irene Carpenter.

In addition to free blood pressure checks and information about diabetes, Medicare and health insurance, the health fair will include free healthy food provided by local farmers and live entertainment, keiki activities, dancing, raffles and prizes between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Another reason to celebrate is HKH was granted $250,000 by the state legislature earlier this month, thanks to support from State Rep. Cindy Evans.

“We will use this funding to build a small extension onto the Kohala Health Center so we can have at least one more doctor’s office and two or three more exam rooms,” Carpenter said. “We plan to have it completed by this fall.”

What sets Hamakua-Kohala Health apart from standard hospitals is that it provides primary and preventative health care to persons of all ages, regardless of their ability to pay or their health insurance status. They serve North Hawaii residents who live as far south as Waikoloa at their two clinics located in Honokaa and in Kapaau.

The health center began in 1966 as the Hamakua Infirmary, later known as the Hamakua Health Center and most recently named Hamakua-Kohala Health.

The demand for new services and staff continues to grow.

“Because of the national opioid epidemic — people using and dying from overdose — we plan to open a new clinic that focuses specifically on pain management,” Carpenter said. “This is a huge problem and we’re looking for a location in Waimea as part of a grant we received several months ago. We hope to open it in the next month.”

In addition, community members feel that emotional or mental challenges are also a big demand, particularly in relation to substance abuse.

“We wrote another grant earlier this year and now have a full-time certified substance abuse counselor, Candace Kauahi, who goes back and forth between the two clinics, and we’re looking for a second one now,” Carpenter said. “We also hired a second psychologist, Carol Blum, so we have one at both clinics, and are looking for a third.”

The next major Hamakua-Kohala Health project will be expanding the Hamakua Health Center in Honokaa.

“We want to let people know that we need more space to provide more services,” Carpenter said. “We need to build at least a $5 million facility in Honokaa and we’re starting a campaign now for donations to get this project started. We’re in a period of massive growth. Finding space to rent is our biggest challenge. We would like to build on the acre we already own but will need millions of dollars more to do so.”

HKH currently employees between 50 and 55 staff members. Keeping them for long periods of time has been a challenge.

“We’ve had a difficult time recruiting and retaining all medical personnel,” Carpenter said. “Over 70 percent of the health facilities across the country are having the same problem. When we recruit people to a rural location like Kohala, it is one of the last places people want to come to. They envision Waikiki, and finding affordable housing in Kohala is extremely difficult. Doctors feel they can’t find a nice place they can afford.”

One of the doctors who has been on staff for 10 years is Dr. Sylvia Sonnenschein, who splits her time between the clinic in North Kohala and the Urgent Care facility in Waimea.

Another long-term HKH employee is Regina Gantala, who has served as the office manager at the Kohala Clinic for 14 years.

Recently, a new advanced practice nurse practitioner, Marian Kehl, joined the Center from Washington State.

“We try to recruit people who really want to be a part of the community and are not just here for a ‘job.’” Carpenter said. “The staff that stay for the long term want a quieter lifestyle, and we take care of all of the problems managing the clinic for them.”

Info: Irene Carpenter at 930-2762

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