5 Things Alaska: Health legislation, State budget, DHSS split

We are now on the other side of the 45th peaceful transfer of power since our Constitution was ratified in 1789. It is one of the most uncommon things in the great swath of human history, having hardly been done without swords or battles of some sort. Here, in America, we do this by election.

If your candidate won, congratulations. If your candidate didn’t win, that is the great luxury of living in a republican democracy. You know you’ll get another chance. Now, Alaska and America move towards a period of lawmaking and governance. Municipal elections are coming up on April 6th, which are consequential. But, it’s also nice to know we won’t likely have quite the animus of the 2020 elections until at least the mid-terms roll around in 2022.





With help from Emily Boerger

1. Health bills teed up for session

Ahead of the start of Alaska’s 2021 legislative session, lawmakers pre-filed over 100 bills covering a range of issues. The first release teed up bills related to COVID-19 relief, transparency, and LGBTQ rights. The second release includes a bill to raise the minimum age to purchase or sell tobacco to 21, the Alaska Health Care Consumer’s Right to Shop Act, and a bill that would encourage mental health education in schools.

Other bills we’ll be watching as session progresses include HB 45 which would help assure compensation for frontline workers for illness-related absences during certain disaster emergencies, and SB 25, also referred to as the Alaska Online Checkbook Act. We also have our eye on legislation that would ban “conversion therapy” for minors and vulnerable adults and this bill which would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.


2. Future of the state budget

Following the release of Gov. Dunleavy’s FY 2022 budget proposal last month, the House Finance Committee held a hearing to review the plan and discuss Alaska’s budgetary situation. During the conversation, Larry Persily, a former deputy commissioner of the Department of Revenue, warned lawmakers of the impact of unsustainable draws from the Permanent Fund earnings reserve.

Persily also notes that Dunleavy’s 10-year budget plan relies on $1.2 billion in 2023 in “other revenue sources” – presumably through a new tax, he says, but there are no details about what that tax might look like. He also says Dunleavy’s proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting new taxes without a vote from the public would substantially limit Alaska’s options.

3. Pushback on proposal to split DHSS

The House Health and Social Services Committee heard testimony last week on Gov. Dunleavy’s proposal to split DHSS into two separate departments. The strong sentiment from those who testified was that the split would do more harm than good for the people who rely on DHSS. Testifiers warned of disruptions to services and a lack of transparency related to the decision as reasons to rethink the proposed bifurcation.

However, one person close to the matter told me the hearing was premature. The person said it was frustrating to hear folks testify on something they haven’t seen language on. They say the Executive Order will be introduced now that the legislature has officially started and begins to organize.


4. Event: Mental health policy in 2021

This Thursday at 8:30 am, we are hosting a panel on “Mental health policy in 2021” as the Biden administration takes the reins today. This session is part of our Leadership Series, one of our “Virtual Conversations” we have built during this pandemic. The event is free, but you have to register.

Tom Insel, MD, will anchor the panel. He led the National Institute for Mental Health from 2002 to 2015. He is now California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mental health czar and one of the most well respected thought leaders on mental health in the country. He will be joined by Andy Keller, CEO of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute based in Texas, as well as by Susan Mims, MD. She is the Interim CEO of the Dogwood Health Trust in North Carolina, one of the country’s largest and newest health care-focused philanthropic foundations.


5. $6.5M in federal funds to improve telehealth

HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan announced last week $6.5 million in funding to develop a telehealth broadband pilot program aimed at increasing telehealth services in rural areas of Alaska, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia. The pilot looks to measure bandwidth and connectivity quality in the four states as a step toward improving access to virtual health care services.

The award went to the Telehealth Technology Assessment Resource Center managed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Bandwidth will be measured in the Aleutians West Borough, Bristol Bay Borough, Dillingham Census Area, Nome Census Area, North Slope Borough and Northwest Arctic Borough. In the long term, ANTHC hopes the data will drive policy and infrastructure changes to improve connectivity in the state.