Alaska News Nightly: January 19, 2011

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House Passes Repeal of Health Care Law
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The U.S. House has passed a bill repealing the 2010 Health Care Law.  This evening’s vote largely broke down along party lines, 245 to 189.  Given the Republican dominance in the House, the vote was no surprise.  But it’s not expected to survive the Senate which is still controlled by Democrats.

Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young voted to repeal it.

Even though Young says many of his constituents want the health care law overturned, recent polls actually show Americans split on the value of it.  A recent survey by Gallop shows 46 percent of Americans favoring repeal and 40 percent against it.  Supporters say approval for the health care law will continue to climb as people begin to see the benefits, like being able to keep kids on insurance longer, until age 26.

The White House and Democrats are swinging back against the Republican repeal effort.  The Department of Health and Human Services released numbers Tuesday saying that 318,000 Alaskans have pre-existing medical conditions, and could be denied coverage without the health care law, which requires insurance companies to take clients regardless of their pre-existing conditions.

Republicans say those numbers are inflated.

Congressman Don Young says Republicans will put forth a smaller, leaner bill that will tackle problems like pre-existing conditions, but not go as far as the Democrats’ 2010 law.

The repeal bill is expected to die in the Senate, and the President would not sign it into law anyway.  But Young says Wednesday’s vote was not just symbolic.

The House will vote Thursday to give four committees the green light to start crafting new health care legislation.  Republican leadership says it’s not setting a deadline on when the new ideas will be put forth.

State Offering Incentives to Update Electronic Records Exchange Procedures
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Alaska health care officials want to make it easier for Medicaid and Medicare providers to keep track of patient records.  The state Department of Health and Social Services is offering financial incentives to participating health providers who want to update electronic records exchange procedures.

Jury Selection Begins for Waterman Trial
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Jury selection began Wednesday in the state’s trail against Rachelle Waterman.  Waterman, now 22, is accused of conspiracy and murder in the 2004 death of her mother, Lauri Waterman.

Rachelle Waterman has pleaded not guilty to seven counts.  An earlier trial, heard in Juneau, ended in a hung jury.  Wednesday, Waterman’s team of attorneys and state prosecutors scrutinized comments made by potential jurors, weeding out those that would be excused from jury duty in the murder trial.   They and Judge William Carey spent the morning shortening the list of potential jurors, settling on some 30 names before going into recess.

Those thirty were to be interviewed individually this afternoon in a sealed courtroom before final selections are made.

The court will convene Thursday afternoon. Waterman’s trial is expected to last three weeks.

Yukon Subsistence Fishermen May Face More Restrictions
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Yukon River subsistence fishermen may be facing further restrictions if a number of proposals now before the Federal Subsistence Board gain approval.  The Board is meeting this week in Anchorage.  Proposals under discussion could restrict drift gillnets in some Yukon River districts, and may prohibit the use of fish wheels in mid-river and upper-Yukon areas.  The proposals are driven by dwindling Yukon Chinook salmon runs, and they are not favored by tribal leaders in upriver villages from Kaltag to Fort Yukon.  Several proposals that are guaranteed to prove contentious  affect  customary trade, or the practice of selling subsistence caught fish, which is allowed under federal regulations.   One proposal would limit cash from such sales to $750 per household.

That’s Harry Wilde, chair of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Advisory Council.  Fishermen in the lower-Yukon’s Mountain Village submitted it, along with two other proposals affecting customary trade of subsistence caught salmon targeting upper-Yukon fishermen.  Wednesday, the panel tackled the question of customary trade of subsistence salmon in the Yukon River management areas  during years in which Chinook harvests are reduced.  After a morning of discussion in which there was no agreement, Board member Geoff Haskett offered an amendment to defer the main proposal, then offered a move which would allow three RAC’s to form a subcommittee to come up with a recommendation on customary sales.

Although there is no time frame on the move, the RAC’s were urged to move quickly in an attempt to get recommendations in front of the board by fall.  The practice of selling subsistence fish has expanded due to increased commercial fishing closures and a recent investigation into the practice revealed that some fishermen selling smoked Yukon subsistence salmon were making thousands in profit.

Andy Firmin, from Fort Yukon, and chair of the Eastern Interior RAC, said Wednesday the new compromise is not perfect, but it is better than the proposals on the table now. He said he had mixed feelings about Haskett’s amendment.

Wilde, on the other hand, said he was feeling more positive.

A Yukon River Chinook conservation plan is also on the Board’s agenda this week.  Haskett says the issue affects the entire Yukon drainage, and it is up to the people to conserve salmon.

Alaska Board of Fisheries Votes to Open Cod Fishing in Western Aleutians
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
In a challenge to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Alaska Board of Fisheries has voted to open state waters to cod fishing in the western Aleutians. This overrides federal regulations meant to protect the endangered western stock of Steller sea lions, and it could mean more conflict between the state and federal government down the road.

Economists Paint Mixed Picture for 2011
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Economists are painting a mixed picture for Alaska in 2011.  The World Trade Center Alaska began a series of statewide economic forecast events with presentations to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. Jonathan King with Northern Economics said Alaska is expected to see flat to slow growth of gross state product, but things could be better depending on the price of oil.

King said Alaska’s G.S.P. could top $48 billion, but cautioned that high oil prices have a mixed affect, raising state revenue, while making it tougher on state residents who have to buy fuel. King said other natural resource development industries in Alaska are also expected to continue.

That should mean another robust year for Alaska exports.  Greg Wolf with the World Trade Center Alaska said sea food and mineral trade are likely to grow again in 2011.

Japan has long been Alaska’s chief trade partner, but Wolf said China is gaining ground fast, growing its purchases from Alaska industries from $100 to $800 million in the last six years.

Wolf said the state’s resource development industries have a lot of potential to increase business with Asian customers, citing a recent World Trade Center Alaska visit to the Pacific Rim, where a massive amount of growth is happening.

Yukon Quest Receives Boost From Renewing Sponsors
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Yukon Quest is getting a boost from new and renewing sponsors. The international sled dog race has financially struggled like many non-profit organizations in recent years, but Alaska side Executive Director Marty Steury says there’s been some good news as of late.

Other recent sponsors announced include Trans Canada, Minto Exploration and The Selkirk First Nation. Steury says the overall level of support is up only slightly, but there is a greater diversity of race support.  She says sponsors don’t always provide cash but cover supplies and services the Quest would otherwise have to pay for.

Steury credits increased corporate support for the race to a less dismal feel to the economy and improved outreach to sell the race.  The 2011 Yukon Quest starts Feb. 5 in Whitehorse.

Inupiat Eskimo Film Maker Debuting at Sundance Film Festival
Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow
The 2011 Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday in Park City, Utah. This year, for the first time in the festival’s history, an Inupiat Eskimo filmmaker from Alaska will have a feature in competition.

World Walker Renewing Trek from Fairbanks
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
British world walker Karl Bushby is back in Fairbanks preparing for the next segment of his global trek.  Bushby staged out of Fairbanks for much of the last decade while he made his way across Alaska, the Bering Strait and into Russia.  Bushby returned to Fairbanks this week, and is training and working logistics for a planned resumption of his walk in the Chukotka region of Russia on Feb. 1.

Bushby’s expedition has been on hold since the spring of 2008, when he left off in the remote mining town of Billibino, Russia, and the global recession proceeded to sink project sponsorship.  Bushby retreated to Mexico, where he spent two years trying to raise new sponsors.  He says things went nowhere until recently when he connected up with two TV producers who are looking at producing a documentary or reality series.  Bushby is optimistic, but says it’s not a done deal.

Bushby is facing big expenses to launch the next expedition phase, including a $14,000 charter flight to get him and his gear from Nome back to Russia.  Bushby has traveled 21,000 miles since beginning his journey at the southern tip of South America in 1998, but finances have always been a challenge. He’s written a book, and been the subject of BBC TV features.  Bushby’s ultimate goal is to walk home to England, where he has not returned since starting his walk.  His 36,000 mile trip could end up taking the better part of 20 years.