Making a Difference: Nonprofit Gets PHOCUSED on Health

State budget cuts inspire a new coalition.

Hundreds of families, some potentially impacted by a proposed 15 percent cut to essential health services, rallied at the Capitol in support of PHOCUSED to help raise awareness.

Photo: Courtesy of Debbie Shimizu

On Jan. 26—the day of Gov. Lingle’s State of the State address—approximately 1,200 people, many outfitted in lime green T-shirts, rallied at the Capitol building to sign-wave and stand up against state budget cuts on social programs. The rally was sponsored by PHOCUSED, Protecting Hawaii’s Ohana, Children, Under Served, Elderly and Disabled—a fledgling nonprofit spreading a wide umbrella to protect the state’s healthcare, housing, mental health and substance- and domestic-abuse programs.

“As the economy tanks, the needs of the people with the least grow,” says Alex Santiago, the director of PHOCUSED. “This is not the time to cut back on things like mental healthcare and developmental disabilities services.”

Photo: Courtesy of Debbie Shimizu

PHOCUSED is a membership-based organization, partnering with several health and human services organizations and agencies, and anyone concerned with the dire state of social programs in Hawaii. Although the nonprofit started up only nine months ago, it already has a 12-member board of directors, most who are executive directors or CEOs of big-name health and human services organizations in Hawaii.

“Our members have been in this field for a long time,” says Debbie Shimizu, chair of the nonprofit and also the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ Hawaii chapter.

Frustrated with increased budget cuts and layoffs, combined with the higher demand for health and human services programs, PHOCUSED hopes to do two things: prevent further cuts of services and have a seat at the table when important funding and operational decisions are being made by the state.

The money PHOCUSED receives from its membership dues and donations goes to its daily operations as well as toward training volunteers to track, follow and testify on health-related legislative bills.

One immediate goal of the nonprofit is to salvage the number of services administered to recipients of mental healthcare. The state’s mental health programs recently notified recipients that their allotted 30 hours of care per month is going to drop to a cap of three hours per month. “This will have adverse effects, short and long term,” says Santiago. “It will hurt the people holding on just to stay in the community.”

Photo: Courtesy of Debbie Shimizu

Groups like NASW, Domestic Violence Coalition, Child & Family Services and others have traditionally scrambled for what little operations money is available, and these groups are usually the first to receive budget cuts.

“They’re big agencies, they compete for dollars and they realize that,” explains Santiago. “But as things tighten up, we’re all going to benefit by uniting and trying to not just get the leftovers.”

While the organizations seem in the same boat, both Santiago and Shimizu say that unification has been easier said than done. “The idea to start this happened years ago,” says Santiago. In the past, previous agencies have tried to start up similar nonprofits, but attempts to organize quickly fell apart because of operational differences.

So what has finally made PHOCUSED successful? Budget cuts. “A lot of needs are being provided by these nonprofits through state funding,” says Santiago. “So when cuts or restrictions occur, you start to see essential care suffer.” He cites examples such as the governor’s cuts to an at-risk teen pregnancy program, and a reduction in services to families who receive help from the developmental disabilities branch within the state Department of Health.

But these challenges have led to strength as groups have realized that working against one another will only exacerbate the crisis. Shimizu notes that the old method of social organizations trying to divide and conquer always fails. “Being united will make [PHOCUSED] prosper,” she says. “People know we have to come together.”

PHOCUSED is also patterning itself after PAFCO, Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, a nonprofit started by Tim Schmaltz. Shimizu invited Schmaltz to Hawaii to lead a workshop at the Capitol in 2007 and asked Santiago to attend. Schmaltz’s success, coupled with Santiago’s connections in the social services sector as a representative from 1990 to 2000 (and former chair of the Committee on Health), inspired him to resurrect efforts in Hawaii. “The Arizona governor calls Schmaltz when making decisions,” says Shimizu. “We hope to be in the same position someday.”

Ultimately, Santiago wants to make Hawaii a model state for healthcare again. “As we took cuts over the years, I always remember everyone saying, ‘do more with less,’” says Santiago. “This sector has done that … and there comes a point when you can’t do more with less. I think we’re there. The time is right.”             

To become a member of PHOCUSED, or to make a donation, visit