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Briefing addresses lack of ER for west Oahu

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HONOLULU (AP) — The closure of a west Oahu hospital has led to longer ambulance transport times as remaining emergency rooms become overcrowded and ambulances have to take patients farther away.

That has been one of the effects of the 2011 closure of Hawaii Medical Center-West in Ewa Beach.

When emergency rooms become full, ambulances are rerouted to different hospitals. The result is increased transport times as ambulances have to go to other hospitals, Honolulu Department of Emergency Services Director Mark Rigg said at a briefing Tuesday hosted by the city councilmembers who represent west Oahu.

The Queen's Health Systems bought the closed hospital and plans to reopen it in 2014. But councilmembers who represent the some 300,000 residents affected by the facility's closure wanted to know how the lack of an emergency room continues to affect the community and emergency service providers.

"Lo and behold, emergency rooms became very busy," Rigg said. "The transport times were longer and the system became very stressed."

Tripler Army Medical Center began taking nonmilitary patients and Kaiser began taking non-Kaiser patients, he said. While his department added two ambulances for the area, one had to be removed because it was taxing staffing levels. A few weeks ago, the department had to stop using a contracted ambulance because of budget issues associated with its $50,000 monthly cost.

And funding for the remaining Ewa Beach ambulance, which operates 16 hours a day, runs out in June. Rigg said he expects the state Legislature to approve measures that would allow the ambulance to continue.

With Oahu's congested roads and the west side's rapid growth, the distance to an emergency room is a real concern. Councilwoman Kymberly Marcos Pine, who hosted the briefing with Councilman Ron Menor, asked whether west Oahu would be prepared if it suffered a crisis similar to this week's Boston Marathon explosions.

The councilmembers pressed Queen's representatives on whether any permits or other approvals are needed that would help speed up the hospital's reopening, and were told Queen's would look into it. Pine said she was concerned to hear about how the automatic federal budget cuts might affect Tripler's ability to continue to treat civilians, and how there's no standardized criteria for hospitals to declare themselves too full to safely accept more patients.

Rigg said criteria vary for each emergency room, but a lack of standards has been compounded by the closure.

"There are days when every single emergency room on the island is on reroute," he said.

Pearl City Urgent Care representatives told the councilmembers they would like to see a way for ambulances to bring patients to urgent care instead of an ER when appropriate. In its outreach to the community about using urgent care for medical issues that don't require an ER, the center also has had to educate tourists staying at Ko Olina Resort that there's no hospital on the west side.

Pine said she'll continue to push for a way to possibly reopen the hospital's emergency room sooner.

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/jenhapa

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