5 Things Alaska: Q&A w/Commissioner Crum, “Chronic COVID,” Liability legislation

We are now covering state health policy in 15 states, providing more independent coverage of state and market-level health care coverage than any outlet in the country, so far as we can tell. It’s a long way from our first story on Alaska health care back in December of 2011!

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With help from Emily Boerger

1. Crum offers update on COVID-19 response

On Monday, DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum joined State of Reform Reporter Sydney Kurle for a conversation on Alaska’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts of the expired public health disaster declaration, and the state’s behavioral health system. Crum also discussed the state’s vaccine rollout, where Alaska is the top-ranked state in terms of percent of the population to receive at least one shot (18%).

“For a state as big as we are, there are a lot of logistical challenges…We’ve had shots delivered by four-wheelers, dogsled, boats, and small airplanes. You name it we’ve used the tool to move vaccines around the state.” Crum says the key to a successful and equitable vaccine rollout is building partnerships and allowing flexibility across different areas of the state.


2. Committee hears bill on liability protections

The Senate Health & Social Services Committee held a hearing yesterday on SB 65, a bill providing liability protections for consulting physicians and other health care providers. Bill sponsor Sen. Jesse Kiehl says the bill is essential because Alaskans rely on consultants for specialized care in rural communities.

“These informal, unpaid consults give Alaskans the benefit of specialist knowledge and some costs by preventing unnecessary medical transports to hub communities,” said Kiehl. The Alaska State Medical Association offered testimony in support of the bill, noting that these types of consultations are “often a matter of life and death,” but without protection, consulting providers are left vulnerable to lawsuits.

3. Implications of “chronic COVID”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Chris Murray, Executive Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME), where I learned something I didn’t know. Based on data from the Novavax COVID vaccine trial, being previously sick with initial COVID-19 variant appears to offer no protection from being infected with the new South African strain of the virus.

Without cross-variant immunity, Murray says this data indicates we may be moving to a “world of chronic COVID” where every winter we will treat COVID as we do the flu. I outline three immediate things that may change for us in this column. Perhaps the most important is this: hospitals and their current financing models are in trouble. Video of my full conversation with Murray is available here.


4. Tribal leader named to Biden’s health equity task force

President Biden announced last week that Victor Joseph, of Tanana, Alaska, will join the administration’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Joseph is one of just 12 non-federal members from across the country named to serve on the task force, which is charged with developing recommendations to help address health disparities during the COVID-19 response.

Victor Joseph was elected to the position of Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) Chief/Chairman in March 2014 by the 42 member tribes and served in the position through October 2020. Joseph was previously TCC’s Health Director for 7 years, and prior to that served as the Alaska Representative on the HHS Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee.


5. Alaska improves on half of health measures

The Healthy Alaskans 2020 Scorecards find the state has met its target or improved on 12 of its 25 health goals. Alaska has reduced its cancer mortality rate, increased the percent of adolescents who haven’t used tobacco in the past 30 days, and reduced the rate of “unique substantiated child maltreatment.” The Alaska Native Scorecard has improved or hit its target on 9 of its 25 goals.

Some goals, however, have made little progress, while others, like suicide mortality rates, mental health measures, and obesity rates show worsening trends. The state has released the finalized state health improvement plan titled Healthy Alaskans 2030.