Though the COVID-19 case rate remains high across the entire state, the latest dashboard data shows that last week saw a 45% decrease in cases compared to the first week in February. There are also currently 103 COVID hospitalizations in the state—a significant improvement compared to earlier this month.
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State of Reform
1. Q&A: Rep. Liz Snyder on 2022 health policy
Rep. Liz Snyder, co-chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, says her educational background and her 13 years in the public health field have focused her policy lens on prevention. “I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…Prevention is usually cheaper and more effective, but it’s delayed gratification, or in some instances it’s almost invisible,” she told State of Reform in a recent Q&A.
Snyder said this year she’s focused on a range of issues including improved access to care and support for home health care workers. Specifically, she’s working to find ways to allow family and friends who serve as home care providers to receive compensation for providing services.
2. Crum testifies on proposed DHSS split
During a Feb. 8 committee meeting, state agency leaders testified on Gov. Dunleavy’s proposal to split the Department of Health and Social Services into two agencies. Stacie Kraly, civil division director at the Alaska Dept. of Law, testified that a key difference between this year’s proposal and last year’s is that the proposal has undergone a more detailed review, particularly as it relates to behavioral health services.
DHSS Director Adam Crum said the current department, with a $3.5 billion budget and close to 3,500 employees, is too large to effectively and efficiently operate. He said he can’t delegate many of his tasks because of the department’s complexity, which in turn creates a bottleneck. “This is a problem. It was a problem for my predecessors, and it will be a problem for any administration that follows.”
3. 5 Slides: Overcoming vaccine hesitancy
Vaccine hesitancy remains an ongoing public health problem in Alaska, with about 12% of Alaskans stating they are not likely to get vaccinated against COVID. To try and shed light on the issue and the pathway forward, State of Reform recently hosted a 5 Slides We’re Discussing conversation on vaccine hesitancy.
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said 66% of unvaccinated adults think vaccine requirements are a greater threat to health and safety than COVID, and 77% don’t trust the federal government’s guidance about vaccines. “What’s heartbreaking is when we see people get so sick because of the misinformation and fear about this that then results in decisions that aren’t empowering their health and their community’s health,” she added.
4. Online benefits filing bill passes Senate committee
A bill that would allow Alaskans to apply for public assistance benefits online passed out of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee earlier this month. Alaska is one of the few states that doesn’t allow for fully electronic applications for assistance programs like SNAP.
Benefit forms are currently available online, but they must be printed, mailed, faxed, or scanned and emailed. According to Food Bank of Alaska, which submitted testimony in support of the bill, Alaska’s current application process can cause delays in receiving benefits and introduces a layer of complexity that can act as a barrier to accessing services. The bill passed out of the House unanimously in April 2021, recently cleared the Senate committee, and has since been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
5. Murkowski introduces student mental health bill
Last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski co-introduced a bill that would allow direct federal funding from SAMHSA to be utilized by schools for student mental health and suicide prevention efforts. The Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act would allow the agency to provide this funding to K-12 schools. Currently, it’s only authorized for colleges and universities.
The funding could be used to conduct training programs for students and staff to enhance their response to mental health issues and suicide attempts. The funding could also go toward utilizing social media and telehealth to conduct suicide risk and mental health screenings. As part of the bill, 10% of the funding would be reserved for grants to entities that serve Indian Tribes or Tribal organizations.