Plans for new Hawaii cancer center speed up
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Plans for new Hawaii cancer center speed up

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Preparations for building a University of Hawai’i cancer research and treatment center in Kaka’ako are accelerating, with groundbreaking expected within a year.

The university hopes the Cancer Research Center of Hawai’i will avoid the mistakes of the nearby UH medical school, which has failed to meet targets for raising money or creating jobs, and has required bailouts from the state Legislature.

The 320,000-square-foot, $200-million-plus cancer center will be financed and built by a private investment firm, which will lease it to UH.

UH will use up to $2 million a month in cigarette tax revenues, a $10.4 million federal construction award and portions of research grants to lease and operate the center, which is expected to open in 2010.

The university has started a national effort to recruit tenured faculty for the center.

The center promises to make the latest drugs and treatments available in Hawai’i without needing annual infusions of cash from state lawmakers. That’s in contrast to the new John A. Burns School of Medicine, which isn’t expected to generate enough money to cover the cost of its new facility in Kaka’ako for several more years.

“I’ve told our legislators I’m not going back every year and ask for more” money, said Carl-Wilhelm Vogel, director of the Cancer Research Center of Hawai’i. “We made sure this is not going to be a disaster. It will be a financial success on top of a healthcare success.”

A GROWING NEED

The new cancer center should fill a growing need in Hawai’i. Each year about 6,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed in Hawai’i — a figure expected to climb to 10,000 by 2030 as Hawai’i’s population ages and life expectancy rates rise, said Jackie Young, chief staff officer for mission at the American Cancer Society Hawai’i Pacific Inc.

“We’re going to need as many services as we can get, (and to be) as coordinated as we can get and as comprehensive as we can get,” said Young. “As we get better at providing services it will only get better for the people of Hawai’i.”

The university plans to sign a lease for the center soon with the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which is overseeing the redevelopment of Kaka’ako. Groundbreaking is expected to occur in about a year.

“We hope to have that signed within the next two months,” said Vogel. “Then it’s the point of no return — we’ll have the ground lease, we’ll have the money and we’ll have the hospital partners lined up. Then it goes.”

The plans to build the new cancer center are moving ahead despite the university’s failed effort to raise $150 million in donations. Less than $1 million of that money, which was promised by former President Evan Dobelle, has been raised to date.

Instead Baltimore-based real estate investment firm Townsend Capital LLC will design, finance and build the facility, which will then be leased to UH under a long-term agreement.

The present Cancer Research Center is adjacent to The Queen’s Medical Center. Expanded facilities are needed to lure a larger amount of national research money and boost cancer care in Hawai’i, Vogel said.

MORE CARE HERE

In addition to providing larger, more modern facilities the new cancer center will house an outpatient cancer treatment center, which could allow researchers to attract more clinical research money while making new drugs and treatments available in Hawai’i. Partners in the project include Hawaii Pacific Health and Hawaii Health Systems Corp. The Queen’s Medical Center plans to open its own cancer treatment center later this year.

The cancer center could result in more Hawai’i residents being able to get treatment in state.

It’s not unusual for local families to decide to seek treatment at well-known Mainland cancer centers, which have easier access to top talent and more experience in administering various cancer treatment procedures.

“Right now if people have the money and the mindset and the education, they might go to the Mainland because they want to be enrolled in a trial or they think they get better care there,” Vogel said. “Not everybody can afford that. Even if you can afford it, if you have cancer and you need to go through six weeks treatment or whatever, you want to be at your home with your family and support base. You don’t want to be in a hotel in Seattle.”

Local efforts by UH and Queen’s to increase cancer treatment capabilities in Hawai’i will take time, said Cliff Cisco, senior vice president for health insurer Hawaii Medical Service Association.

“You have to be able to build a reputation for excellence over time,” he said. “If the cancer center becomes a catalyst for the development of more capacity, that would be an important thing for the future.”

LEARNING FROM ERRORS

In addition to tobacco tax revenue and a $2 million a year state appropriation, the existing cancer center receives about $30 million a year in research awards. UH hopes to boost that figure once the new cancer center opens, while also creating new jobs.

However, Vogel declined to predict how much more research money and jobs would be added. About 285 people work at the cancer center, which is recruiting for 15 or so faculty research and nursing and staff positions.

Vogel’s hesitation to predict staffing levels stems from the university’s already poor track record for keeping promises made concerning the Kaka’ako campus. In addition to failing to raise $150 million to finance a new cancer center, UH’s new medical school has failed to draw in a promised $100 million or more per year in research and training grants. So far, the medical school also has generated just a fraction of the 500 new jobs originally forecast.

In addition, a key promise — that the medical school would not require added state money to cover costs — may not be fulfilled for several years. Last month, Gov. Linda Lingle signed a new law expected to provide the school with an additional $3 million to $4 million a year for the next four years. That’s on top of $7.4 million in supplemental, additional budget funds already given to the medical school during the past two years.

UH also receives more than $20 million a year in general funds to run the medical school, which educates an annual class of 62 students.

Gary Ostrander, interim dean for the medical school, said the university does not want to repeat previous mistakes at the cancer center.

“The good thing is we’re progressing slowly so we don’t end up in the same situation that we are with the medical school,” he said.

By Sean Hao, The Honolulu Advertiser

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