Part 2: Q & A With Deb Erickson, Alaska Health Care Commission Executive Director

The Alaska Health Care Commission is one of the primary drivers of both health policy and public awareness about health care in Alaska.  I interviewed Executive Director Deb Erickson to get a sense of where the Commission would be focusing on in 2012.  This is the second part of the interview.  You can find the first part here.

How about the marketplace?  Are you seeing innovations moving forward that offer some promise to Alaskans?

Absolutely.  Alaska’s health care industry has always been innovative in exploring new ways to improve access and quality of care.  For example, they have been global leaders in the development and application of telemedicine technologies.  Two more recent examples include an in-home telehealth monitoring program implemented by the Alaska Federal Health Care Partnership for remotely measuring vital signs to support self-care and early intervention by providers for patients with chronic conditions;  and the eICU service provided by Providence Alaska Medical Center to rural hospitals supporting patient monitoring for critically ill patients from a central location.

Market forces are also evolving right now to drive greater integration and better coordination of care.  New Medicare penalties for hospital readmissions to be implemented later this year along with Meaningful Use requirements for electronic health records are just two examples of the many changes moving the system in this direction.  The work of the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services and the Alaska eHealth Network on the state’s new Health Information Exchange will provide an essential tool for facilitating care coordination and care transitions.

Alaskan employers are looking for solutions to the health care cost problem so they can continue providing health benefits for their employees.  Certain of our  large employers are testing new and more comprehensive approaches to employee health management programs that include not just worksite wellness activities, but redesigned health benefit plans, care management programs, and on-site employee health clinics.  We’re also seeing private insurance plans beginning to experiment with offering financial incentives for plan participants in the individual and small group market who participate in various wellness and personal health improvement activities.

Care to offer your guess as to what the Supreme Court will do?

No.  My hairdresser’s guess would be as good as mine.  Want her number?

I don’t have enough hair for a ‘dresser,’ sadly.  You’ve been around state government for a long time.  What is it about health policy that keeps you around?

Most of the 25 years I’ve worked for the State of Alaska have been in the field of public health, focused on community health and population-based prevention.  The condition of our health care system is a public health crisis.  Vast public and private resources are being wasted on treating conditions that are preventable, and in a delivery system that is fragmented, inefficient, and provides services not always known to be effective.  While we spend more money on health care here than anywhere else on the globe, we’re not achieving a public health benefit in return – we’re no healthier for the investment, and too many vulnerable Alaskans lack access to health care services they need.

At the same time I think the opportunities for medicine and public health to join forces to improve the health and well-being of communities have never been greater, and I’m very excited about the possibilities.  The Institute of Medicine just released a report at the end of March on exploring integration between primary care and public health as an avenue to improving population health.  The time is right for action – we can make a positive difference in the lives of all Alaskans.

There have been a series of ad hoc committees in Alaska over the years to address health care.  The Commission though appears to be unique, to really stand apart from those previous efforts.  How would you say the Commission is different from previous efforts to address health care issues?

There have been at least four different groups formed in Alaska over the past two decades to address issues related to health care access, cost and quality – three public and one private.  The life span of these groups ranged from 6 to 18 months.  When the legislature established the Health Care Commission as a permanent body in state statute during 2010 they were making a statement that the health care challenges we face today in Alaska must be addressed, and they recognized that the problems are too complex to be studied and solved in one year’s time.  They also recognized that they needed an on-going effort to provide evaluation and accountability for recommended reforms over time.

Well thanks for taking the time to chat with us for a bit, Deb.  I appreciate very much your willingness to offer your thoughts.

Thanks for the opportunity.

This is the first in an occasional series of Q & A’s with policy and market leaders in health care.  Stay tuned for others coming in the near future.