5 Things Alaska: Sandra Heffern, Rural telehealth, Federal action

Thank you to our team of reporters, led by our Managing Editor Emily Boerger, for holding down the fort while I was away on a family break. We have 8 reporters these days. They cover health care and health policy in Alaska and 14 other states across the country. We’ve come quite a ways since our first event in Anchorage back in 2011…

Thanks, as always, for reading our stuff. Let me know what you like, what you don’t, and how else we might support your work to improve the health care system for Alaskans.





1. Q&A: Sandra Heffern on a community-based model of care

Sandra Heffern PhD is President of Effective Health Design. She has been working on bringing stakeholders together around a common vision for health reform for more than a decade. So, in this Q&A with reporter Chan Pedersen, Heffern talks through what she sees as a pathway for care improvement based on her work over the years.

“I think that part of what we have to do is, in order for us to really change our healthcare system, and look at a community-based health model, we really need to know how much we’re spending. Not just from Medicaid, not just from state employees, but from all sources. And we don’t have that information… It’s like we’re spending an enormous amount of money on health care throughout the country, not just in Alaska, and you want to mess with somebody’s business model. That’s a hard sell.”


2. ICYMI: Topical Agenda now available

In case you missed it, we recently released the Topical Agenda for the 2021 Alaska State of Reform Health Policy Conference coming up on September 14th! It’s a set of topics pulled together from scores of hours of conversations with our Convening Panel, key stakeholders, and sponsors. We’ll be exploring politics and policy in health care, discussing new models of collaboration across silos, and diving deep into lessons learned from the pandemic, community level health, and the future of the health care workforce.

You can view the Topical Agenda here for a sense of the conversations we have teed up, and if you have suggestions for speakers let us know. If you haven’t already registered, we’d be honored to have you join us!

3. Rural & frontier telehealth expansion

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are working to direct increased funding to frontier states like Alaska for telehealth. In a new bill, the Rural and Frontier Telehealth Expansion Act, they join senators from Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, and West Virginia. It would seek to increase the FMAP, or federal share of Medicaid, by 5% to be directed to telehealth funding.

This is the latest bill the two legislators have teamed up to carry. In just the last few weeks, they got together for legislation to address teen dating violence, and a separate effort to get cruise ships back visiting the state.


4. Jessee reflects on future of workforce

Data gathered by ValuePenguin finds primary care labor shortages in 79% of Alaska’s boroughs. The report shows 89% of boroughs have mental health provider shortages and 63% have dental health shortages. “We don’t have the capacity in the state to grow our own,” says Jeff Jessee, Dean of the College of Health at the University of Alaska.

Jessee says offering advancement opportunities, attracting workers from outside of Alaska, and supporting retention activities are key to filling these positions. The university was recently awarded $480,000 to invest in behavioral health education at the graduate level, which Jessee says will be use to invest in cultural awareness, telehealth training, and inter-professional development.

Jessee is a seminal figure in Alaska health care, having helped litigate the case that led to the formation of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, an organization he led for years. Jessee is retiring from his role as Dean of the UAA College of Health on July 31st.


5. Federal conversations to close coverage gap

Senate Congressional Democrats recently reached an agreement to pursue a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that will contain a broad array of health-related provisions including funding to cover individuals in the “coverage gap” in non-Medicaid expansion states. In this piece, State of Reform columnist Jim Capretta outlines the federal workarounds that lawmakers may pursue to address the coverage gap.

Capretta says Congressional Democrats have a few options including the creation of a national public option, or the creation of a federally financed Medicaid option. He says a federally-run Medicaid offering wouldn’t generate as much opposition from hospital and insurance industries, but it would still be controversial. “Officials in the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress see 2021 as a historic opportunity to enact a substantial portion of their agenda, and closing the coverage gap is near the top of their list of priorities.”