Waikiki Health sign

The weathered wooden sign hanging above the back stairwell at Waikiki Health on Ohua Avenue reminds staffers of their roots and how far their nonprofit has come in the past 52 years.

When the Waikiki Drug Clinic opened in 1967, its mission was to treat members of the 1960s drug culture. The word “free” on the sign referred to counseling but might have given stoners the mistaken impression that they could stop in for free pakalolo or other mood-changing drugs. That was not the case.

Waikiki Health still counsels patients with substance issues – free of charge if they cannot afford to pay – but it now does much more. With 192 employees and an annual budget just shy of $20 million, the nonprofit treats more than 10,000 individuals a year in six different locations, making it a major part of Oahu’s health care community.

“We’re the safety net,” says Phyllis Dendle, Waikiki Health’s new CEO. “Fundamentally, we’re about providing health care in the community.”

That community is diverse. More than three of five patients are on Medicaid and/or Medicare. Approximately a third live below what Hawaii considers the poverty level. One in five is either homeless or lives in a shelter. One in 10 has been diagnosed with depression or alcohol and/or substance abuse.

Not every patient is in desperate need of assistance. In the latest reporting period, patient service revenue accounted for $13.2 million of Waikiki Health’s $19.9 million budget. These are mostly insured patients who visit the clinic for their checkups, dental work and medicines from the pharmacy. The remaining income comes from federal, state and city grants ($5.17 million), private foundations and individual donations ($1.1 million) and bequests ($346,000).

This means that paying customers are helping Waikiki Health minister to those who need help, regardless of their ability to pay.

Dendle says her mission as CEO is to continue Waikiki Health’s current programs but in a more robust fashion.

“Change is strengthening what we do well,” she says.

An example is Next Step Shelter in Kakaako, which provides homeless residents with transitional housing as it helps them find permanent homes. Waikiki Health has had clinic space there that wasn’t staffed. It’s now open.

Waikiki Health operates Youth Outreach on Keoniana Avenue for Oahu’s young homeless population between the ages of 14 and 22. But its medical services were available only one half-day a week. Hours have been tripled to three half-days a week.

Overseeing Waikiki Health’s network of services is Medical Director Dr. Elliot Kalauawa, who joined the nonprofit 33 years ago. Under his direction it has expanded its services to answer the community’s growing needs.

Examples: perinatal and social services for women with substance use issues, therapy for adults with behavioral problems, ongoing care and medicines for HIV patients, and a stop-smoking program.

Located just a few blocks from the heart of Waikiki, the Ohua Avenue clinic also welcomes visitors in need of medical services. Mary Beth Lohman, director of marketing and development, works with Waikiki hotels to place information packets about the clinic in their guest rooms, and many visitors have used it instead of hospital emergency rooms.

“We focus on being good neighbors,” Dendle says of the relationship with the visitor industry.

A newer program, called “transgender navigation,” offers medical, psychological, legal and financial advice along with group support. Kalauawa says the first issue to be addressed might be as obvious as: “What will your new name be?” The clinic does not provide the highly specialized final surgery.

Kalauawa sees a critical problem with health care in Hawaii that receives little attention: the high cost of co-pays for prescribed medication. Many of his insured patients cannot afford the co-pays and end up not taking the meds they need to maintain their health. The answer, he says, is reforming Medicare and Medicaid legislation.

For Dendle, taking on the CEO job is a return to an organization that she previously served as a board member and chairperson. The Radford High School and University of Hawaii graduate, who once thought she would become a journalist, instead embarked on a career that taught her the internal workings of nonprofits, for-profits and state and local governments. She was an analyst and researcher for the Honolulu City Council and state House of Representatives, director of government affairs and public health fund administrator for the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, associate director of the Oahu Economic Development Board and, until her retirement in 2016, director of government relations for Kaiser Permanente Hawaii.

Dendle says she was “hanging out, doing nonprofit work” as a retiree when the Waikiki Health board asked her late last year to step in as interim CEO following the departure of Sheila Beckham. She agreed, and after a few months on the job removed the “interim” from her business card in February.

She says her long and varied career is serving her well in the new job.

“Those are useful skills to be able to speak persuasively,” she says. “I walk into meetings knowing how things work.”

I asked Dendle what it’s like to come out of retirement and into the leadership of an organization that deals with so many tough issues.

“I have the most interesting days,” she says.

Contact Phyllis Dendle at pdendle@waikikihealth.org.

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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