Q&A: Senator Chang talks about the role affordable housing plays in Hawaii’s public health

Senator Stanley Chang represents Hawaii’s 9th District. He is the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health. In this Q&A, Chang shares both Hawaii’s greatest health care achievements and areas where he believes the state can improve. He is particularly passionate about affordable housing and why it’s an important piece of the puzzle during the pandemic and beyond.

 

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Shawna De La Rosa: In your opinion, what is Hawaii doing right in terms of health care?

Sen. Stanley Chang: “Hawaii is a pioneer in health care in some ways. Most notable is the Hawaii Prepaid Health Care Act from the 1970s. It requires employers to provide health care for employees who work more than 18 hours a week. Because of that, we have one of the highest rates of health care coverage in the country.”

SD: Where can the state improve in terms of health care?

SC: “I’d like to see the stigma around mental health issues broken down. I have friends who would rather admit to having erectile dysfunction than having depression. I don’t know how to eradicate the stigma, but it’s just crazy to me that it exists. I have seen research recently on the use of psychedelics to treat depression. Legislation could open doors for research on that.”

SD: Is there any other legislation coming up that will impact health care?

SC: “The legislature did introduce a new benefit, Hawaii Care, to help health care workers remain in the workplace. It’s a very small program and it doesn’t come close to covering all that is needed. Long-term care is so expensive and the need is so great. I don’t know how much the state can do there, it will have to come down to federal action and that will be controversial and a major spending item.”

SD: How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting health and the economy in Hawaii?

SC: “I’m the chair of the Housing Committee. On a public health level, we’ve seen the preventative prescription is housing. Being at home is the most effective prevention that we have for the virus. But Hawaii is facing the most severe housing shortages in the country. We’ve seen many clusters linked to overcrowded housing, including an outbreak a the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

I intend to end the housing shortage. I want to double, triple, quadruple the housing so that every Hawaiian family can have a home. It’s a long-term problem, but I’m cautiously optimistic that this crisis will open the window to end the housing shortage.

It also plays into mental health. The price of housing in Hawaii is the highest in the world. The median home price on Oahu is $880,000. There is no cheap place to live. We’ve lost population for three straight years and it’s predicted to be much more dramatic the next three years.”

SD: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the state?

SC: “It’s devastating. We have a $2 billion gap out of a $14 billion budget. There is no money. The governor is discussing furloughs of 10 percent of the state employees. There’s no fat to cut. It’s cutting muscle and you’re getting to bone. This is the exact wrong time to be making cuts because state employees educate our children, they contact trace and inspect restaurants to make sure social distancing and sanitation are being enforced. They are our epidemiologists. The last thing we should be doing is contributing to the unemployment crisis which is already the worst in the country.”

SD: If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, how will that affect Hawaii residents?

SC: “I am concerned. I know people who can only have insurance because of Obamacare. It’s very difficult for young people who don’t get insurance through their employer. I was one of them myself between 2014 and 2016. I was self-employed and I had to buy Obamacare myself. We have an aging population. We are the state with the highest number of people people that have two or more jobs. We have people who are barely scraping by.

I’m hoping that because of the pandemic it’s not going to be business as usual this year. I’m optimist. I hope the legislation will not be afraid of change and plunge in to take major steps towards change.

Kennedy said the Chinese symbol of crisis is danger and opportunity. We need to seize this opportunity. I just finished a biography on Francis Perkins. She is known for being the first female United States cabinet secretary.  She was the U.S. Labor Secretary and a worker’s right advocate under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during The New Deal. She is known for passing several worker’s rights initiatives including the 40 hour work week, child labor bans, unemployment insurance, workers comp and more. That’s a perfect example of how a huge crisis in this nation, The Great Depression, forced lawmakers to get their act together and make these changes.

It took a crisis for those changes to be implemented, and I’m hoping this crisis will do the same.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.