Sick economy is a medical threat, too

Gov. David Ige is worried about Hawaii’s ability to respond to a crisis like the coronavirus threat. He’s not the only one.

Our governor spoke earlier this week about his discussions with the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies regarding his concerns about how our remote location makes it more difficult for the state to be proactive. 

He explained: “The time it takes for us to get a sample, send it to Atlanta for testing, and get it back exceeds more than a week. The ability to test in Hawaii should be a national priority just because of our isolation.”

He went on to assure the public that if the virus were to appear on our shores, the state has a quarantine plan and will set up “instant hospitals” if our current facilities are overloaded. 

This, of course, begs a lot of questions, such as: Who is going to staff these pop-up medical facilities? How will we get supplies in an emergency, and how pricey will they be? Can the state economy — and the state budget — weather this kind of crisis?

At this point, it’s not a question of if, but when a Hawaii resident will be diagnosed with coronavirus. Already, a couple visiting from Japan tested positive for the virus after spending 10 days in Hawaii. Several other U.S. states are responding to their own coronavirus victims. We hope and we pray that Hawaii is spared any serious outbreak, but the situation is weighty enough that we should be asking what we need to do to prepare for such emergencies.

This is an issue we expect our leaders to grapple with. It’s the fundamental reason people come together to form governments in the first place: for mutual protection and benefit. So it’s good to know that state officials are monitoring the situation. But the assurance that there is a quarantine protocol and a plan for “instant hospitals” feels somewhat incomplete.

Looking closely at our ability to deal with emergencies reveals a terrible irony: In times of crisis, we are likely to be held back by the same problems that affect us now — the doctor shortage, the shipping restrictions caused by the Jones Act, the high cost of living, the budgetary excesses and lack of a “rainy day” fund. All of these contribute to our lack of emergency preparedness, just like they contribute to the high cost of living and other issues today.

When the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii advocates policies that will bring more doctors to the islands, make it easier to open new healthcare facilities, cut excessive spending or lower the cost of shipping, it may seem like we’re only focused on the state’s prosperity.

But that’s not the only reason we push for greater economic freedom. The policies we advocate have been shown to lower the cost of living and boost the economy. But they also will put the state in a better place to withstand emergency situations like the coronavirus outbreak. Because once a crisis is upon you, it’s too late to institute the long-term reforms that would attract more doctors, or implement a tough spending cap that would create a budget surplus.

Currently, Hawaii’s is estimated to be short by approximately 820 physicians. That is a sizable deficit, one that expresses only the lack of doctors available to meet our current needs, not our needs in a public health crisis. We have presented testimony on bills that would help address the shortage by eliminating the general excise tax for medical services.

Politicians often talk about hoping for the best and planning for the worst. But by embracing economic freedom and best practices in governance, we can plan for the best and be prepared for the worst.

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