House Health and Social Services committee hears testimony on proposed split of DHSS

On Wednesday the House Health and Social Services committee heard testimony from multiple experts on Governor Mike Dunleavy’s proposed bifurcation of the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). The overwhelming sentiment from these experts was that the proposed split would do more harm than good to the people who rely on DHSS.

 

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In late December 2020, Dunleavy announced his intention to split DHSS into two separate departments, the Alaska Department of Health and the Alaska Department of Family and Community Services. This split was aimed at streamlining and improving service delivery while creating more flexibility in departments.

However in testimony on Wednesday, experts expressed concern that this move could actually make it harder for citizens to utilize services provided by DHSS. Amanda Metivier, Director and Co-Founder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska, said she believes this proposed split will put strain on a system that is already experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe that the proposed bifurcation is coming from good intent and trying to improve the system,” said Metivier. “I just don’t think that it’s the solution or fix in terms of gaining public trust, especially considering timing, and to lack input from stakeholders.”

Metivier also spoke about how stakeholders were not informed about the proposed split until a day before the announcement was made public. This was especially troubling to her because the proposed split would also bifurcate the Office of Children’s Services (OCS). Splitting this office would make an already complex system more complex for families, said Metiver.

Lynn Biggs of Casey Family Programs, who also testified, said there is no evidence suggesting this split will save money. In fact, she said this may cost more money because of increased operational costs that are a part of establishing a new department. 

There were also concerns from Jake Metcalf, Executive Director of the Alaska State Employee Association, that this was an attempt to outsource jobs in this department in order to lower costs. He said that if this were to happen, the quality of services rendered would be lowered because the jobs would be given to people who are unfamiliar with the intricacies that are part of living in Alaska. 

The proposed split would also affect the Alaskan Native population that relies on services that are provided by DHSS. The experts all agreed that a disruption to these services, which could occur during the restructuring, would be devastating to the families that rely on DHSS services. This is especially critical to Alaskan Native families because 65 percent of the children that are in DHSS care are Alaskan Native. 

Richard (Chalyee Éesh) Peterson, President of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said they were not consulted at all on the proposed bifurcation. This sentiment was echoed by Chief PJ Simon, a Chief Chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

“We met with Commissioner Crum as part of the working group last week,” said Peterson. “You know, coming to the table and telling us a decision that has already been made really isn’t consultation. It doesn’t fit government to government consultation at all.”

“We are willing to work with the Commissioner to achieve the best results for Alaska,” said Simon. “We do not support the proposed division of DHSS, as it would place a separation between programs and services that are necessarily intertwined.”

DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum was invited to the meeting to discuss the proposed split and the benefits to the proposal but was unable to attend.