5 Things Alaska: Q&A w/ Sen. Begich, COVID hospitalization costs, Health care wage gap


Emily Boerger


This edition of 5 Things We’re Watching touches on a broad range of issues impacting Alaska’s health care system. We feature a conversation on improving health equity in the state, the latest data on COVID hospitalization and treatment costs, and State of Reform Reporter Ethan Kispert has a forward-looking policy conversation with Sen. Tom Begich.

As always, thanks for reading. And, if you have story ideas or tips for what we should be covering in Alaska’s health sector, we’d love to hear from you!

Emily Boerger
Managing Editor
State of Reform


1. Q&A: Sen. Begich discusses 2022 health policy priorities

Senator Tom Begich serves as Senate Minority Leader and is a member of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee. In this Q&A, Begich offers his take on the most significant challenges facing Alaska health care and looks ahead to his health policy priorities for 2022.

Begich says supporting the nursing workforce, protecting the WWAMI program to bring more doctors into the state, and addressing the certificate of need program will all be important in the 2022 session. He says his most immediate concern, however, is ensuring Alaskans trust in science. “If we don’t deal with the reality around scientific treatment for medical illnesses, we have a bigger problem than whether or not we’re staffing [adequately].”


2. Alaska leading in COVID cases and costs

Despite trending in the right direction since the end of September, Alaska’s per capita COVID-19 case rate currently ranks in the top five in the nation at 488.8 cases per 100K over the last 7 days, according to the CDC. This week, FAIR Health released a set of interactive maps showing typical costs for COVID treatment and hospitalizations. The data, which evaluates out-of-network and in-network charges, shows Alaska leading on these measures too.

For COVID-19 complex inpatient treatment, the average out-of-network charge in Alaska is over $417,000. Only Nevada and California have higher charges on this measure. For in-network charges for complex inpatient treatment, Alaska ranks near the top at over $125,000. Alaska’s profile, which also includes cost data on outpatient treatment and noncomplex inpatient treatment, is available here.

3. Gender wage gap across the health sector

In 2019, women accounted for 76% of all workers in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector, but received just 70% of total wages. The latest edition of the Alaska Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development’s “Alaska Economic Trends” breaks down the gender wage gap across multiple sectors.

About 51% of the state’s dentists are women, but they earn just 61 cents for every dollar earned by men. The earnings ratio for family medicine physicians is 76%, where men out-earn women by an average of $48,308. For registered nurses, where women make up 87% of the workforce, women receive 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. Preliminary data also indicates the pandemic hit women’s earnings harder than men’s in Alaska, but the report says comprehensive data on earnings during COVID by gender won’t be available for a few more months.


4. Data missing for Black Alaskans

Excess deaths have been more than twice as high among Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Latino adults during the pandemic than their white and Asian peers. During our “Addressing health equity in Alaska” panel at the State of Reform Conference last month, Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus, highlighted the lack of current and historical data on health outcomes for Black Alaskans.

Growden says the Alaska Black Caucus will be using $1.15 million in federal grant money to publish data on Black Alaskans – including information on COVID mortality and vaccinations. She says the data can then be used to highlight how racism impacts the health sector and to start conversations with providers and hospitals. “We’re going to get some data to really move the needle.”


5. New efforts to combat the opioid epidemic

Updated provisional data from the CDC shows from March 2020 to March 2021, drug overdose deaths jumped 38.5% in Alaska. At the end of May, DHSS announced opioid overdoses saw a 165% spike in 2020. As part of the state’s effort to reverse these trends, Gov. Dunleavy issued an Administrative Order on Oct. 1 to establish the Governor’s Advisory Council on Opioid Remediation to manage and allocate opioid abatement funds.

Last month SAMHSA also awarded $3.87 million in grant money to Alaska to combat the overdose epidemic. The funding includes over $1 million to the Eastern Aleutian Tribes for Medication Assisted Treatment, $1.8 million divided between six separate Tribal Opioid Response grants, $788,558 to Fairbanks Native Association for a Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment grant, and $250,000 to ANTHC through a First Responders Addiction Recovery Act grant.