Keynote: Health care’s role in Hawaii’s economic outlook


Nicole Pasia


Representing unique perspectives on Hawaii’s economic landscape, three executives shared their thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the state’s welfare and communities at our recent 2022 Hawaii State of Reform Health Policy Conference.

Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, John Fink, CEO of Aloha United Way, and David Lassner, president of the University of Hawaii (UH), joined the panel for an insightful conversation. 


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With the pandemic reaching the two-year mark, Fink shared the effects of burnout on the nonprofit sector. 

“Whether people understand it or realize it or not, there is burnout. There is fatigue. There is duress that’s affected people. We’re all going to have to be very savvy and aware of that in terms of how we deal with it—not just in the nonprofit community but in the state in general.”

He also noted that while an influx of funding from federal and private sector partners have helped prevent many organizations from folding, there’s no guarantee that relief will remain constant. According to Fink, strengthening the nonprofit sector is vital for the vulnerable communities they serve, such as asset-limited, income-constrained, employed (ALICE) individuals, which now account for roughly half of the state population. 

Lassner said another way to increase economic mobility for these communities is through increased access to higher education. He noted the pandemic’s toll on the number of Hawaii high school graduates who continue to higher education. Prior to the pandemic, 55% of those graduates continued their education, but that figure has fallen to 50-51% over the last couple years. 

With that statistic in mind, Lassner said the UH system will continue to work with partners such as the Department of Education to strengthen the education pipeline. For example, the Hawai’i P-20 Partners for Education Program aims to improve retention and learning proficiency for elementary students all the way to college and post-secondary students.

Vara shifted the conversation to long-term solutions that would increase economic efficiency not only in the health care sector, but across the state. That includes disincentivizing emergency care in favor of higher-quality preventative care. 

“We will know we’ve succeeded when the value of an empty hospital bed is greater than the value of an occupied hospital bed because we have done something meaningful to change the health of the population,” he said.

A common theme during the panel was the importance of constant collaboration between all sectors across the state—policymakers, health care, education, and private and nonprofit agents.

“We’re all having conversations that are so different that it was during the pre-COVID environment,” Vara said. “… if we’re able to sustain that spirit of collaboration amongst cross-sector leadership, Hawaii’s going to be in a much better place.”