Ellen Bellerose rushed to Maui Memorial Medical Center's emergency room on her cardiologist's recommendation after she felt severe pain in her neck, chest and arms. As the pain intensified over the next two hours, she walked up to the counter three times to report difficulty breathing. She was told there were no beds available. "I was becoming terrified that I could die, unattended, in the emergency room." Although registered as a patient for 27 hours, she never entered the main hospital that February 7, 2006, but was billed as if she had.

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Bellerose is one of many Maui residents with complaints about Maui Memorial, the island's only acute care hospital. She along with several dozen other Maui residents and medical professionals shared their agonizing stories in 2006 with the Hawaii State Health Planning and Development Agency (SHPDA), a division of the state Health Department, in hopes the agency would agree to allow competition for the island's only hospital. But SHPDA blocked the plan to open Malulani Health and Medical Center, a 150-bed acute hospital facility, largely at Maui Memorial's insistence, because Maui Memorial claimed competition would put the state hospital out of business.

Today, as debate rages nationally on whether healthcare should be controlled by government or the free market, the battle continues over what healthcare should encompass on Maui - an island with a growing population of about 140,000 people and another 2 million visitors annually. Should there be just one acute care hospital to service an island of 727 square miles, much of the land remote and accessible through just one road?

The current hospital system's supporters say yes, including Maui union-backed lawmakers. However, many Maui residents are deeply troubled by the conditions at the 231-bed hospital, managed by the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation (HHCS), an entity created in 1998 by the state Legislature to manage a dozen state-owned hospitals.

While most in the community don't disparage the hospital's doctors and nurses, they are critical of the old facilities, outdated and broken medical equipment and mediocre management.

Whether it's the smell from the morgue contained by a towel stuffed under the door, battles with toxic mold, the aged, out-of-date medical equipment or the archaic record-keeping computer system, several medical personnel question whether the facility is "safe.”

Malia Zimmerman

Malia Zimmerman is the president of Hawaii Reporter.