Alaska News Nightly: December 28, 2011

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Russian Tanker Waiting On Jones Act Waiver

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

The Russian Tanker Renda is steaming towards Dutch Harbor to pick up 400,000 gallons of gasoline bound for Nome. But it must first receive a waiver of the Jones Act, or it will turn north and deliver diesel fuel only.

Missing Bethel Teen Found Dead

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

A 15-year-old boy was found dead beside a snow machine in Pinky’s Park in Bethel.  Police have not released the boy’s name yet, but say his parents had reported him missing and search and rescue volunteers, Alaska State Troopers, and police had all been looking for him.

Police say the boy’s body was found Tuesday at about 1 p.m. They do not know the cause of death yet, but say no foul play is suspected at this time.

There were signs of hypothermia.  The snow machine was located on the tundra in the brush, and was not damaged.

They do not yet know if alcohol or drugs were involved.

The boy’s remains will be transported to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage for further investigation.

This is the third death this month that Bethel police are investigating. Two women were found dead in hotels in separate incidents, on Dec. 11 and Dec. 21.

Karluk Manor Object Of Lawsuit Against Anchorage Municipality

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

Less than a month after Karluk Manor began taking in chronic alcoholic tenants, the Housing First facility finds itself not the object, but the springboard for a lawsuit against the Municipality of Anchorage.

National Parks See Visitor Increase In 2011

Associated Press

Despite the weak economy, National Parks in Alaska had a modest increase in visitors for 2011.

The Alaska Region saw about 2.32 million recreational visits over the past 12 months, up 50,000, about 2 percent from 2010.

Kenai Fjords and Denali National Parks had the largest increases for 2011. Those two parks, along with Glacier Bay, Klondike Gold Rush and Sitka national parks, account for about 90 percent of visits to National Parks in the state. Final numbers for this calendar year will be available in the spring.

Part 2: Specialty Care Comes With a Big Price Tag in Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The Alaska Health Care Commission just released a series of reports that try to understand why health care costs so much more in Alaska. One important finding is that the cost for specialty care is much higher here than in other parts of the country.

The commission reports compare costs in Alaska to states in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and two low population states, Wyoming and North Dakota. On average primary care doctors and pediatricians charge about 40 percent more in Alaska. But with some specialists, that number rises to 80 percent or more. Dr. Ward Hurlburt chairs the commission and is also the director of the division of public health.

“The difference in pricing has been a significant finding,” Hurlburt said. “I think we all know intuitively, if you go to the doctor, hospital or emergency room, but to have that documented is impressive.”

The fees for some common procedures can be 4-5 times higher than in the comparison states. In Cardiology, for example, a left heart catheterization costs about $2,200 in Alaska and only 400 in Washington. In orthopedics, a knee surgery costs $6,400 in Alaska and only $1,700 in Washington.  Hurlburt says some of that higher cost can be attributed to the fact that everything costs more in Alaska, but not all.

“Medicine is a business, it’s a unique business with ethical and moral dimensions to it, but it is a business and like most businesses there is probably some tendency to charge what you can charge,” Hurlburt said. “If Mcdonalds could charge twice as much, they probably could, if the competition wasn’t there.”

Commission members are quick to say the reports are not about finger pointing, or assigning blame. Commission member Jeff Davis is president of Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alaska. He is also careful not to assign blame. But says having these prices documented, in a very public way, may be a first step towards bringing them down.

“Davis: And I think the work of the commission will cause some people to do some soul searching and to say, wow, I didn’t realize this is what the situation was, is this the outcome that we want for my particular role in the whole equation? Annie Feidt: By Soul searching, who are you talking about? Davis: Well I think providers are certainly going to look at what’s in that report and say is this the way it has to be, is this the way it should be.”

I called four different specialty care clinics in Anchorage, to try to understand why their fees are so high. No one called back. But there are people in Anchorage who can see the issue from the specialist’s perspective. Dennis McMillian is President of the Foraker Group. He has spent the last 20 years trying to find affordable health care plans for non profits in Alaska. That search has been fruitless, but he says there are good reasons the doctors are charging so much.

“Now that’s not the doctors fault, necessarily, to some extent it’s our fault, because we want all this here and these specialists who charge so much here charge so much here because if they were living in the Lower 48 they would have a lot more people to charge to make what they’re making,” McMillian said.

We are a low population state far away from larger West Coast cities where there is more competition in the market, and more patients for doctors to draw income from. One of Jeff Davis’s favorite anecdotes he’s heard on the commission came out of Ketchikan. He says it highlights one of the big problems with cost in Alaska.

“Really they need about one and quarter orthopedic surgeons in Ketchikan to meet the demand. But you can’t just hire one and a quarter of a surgeon when you live on an island in Southeast Alaska, you have to hire two. And therefore that drives a number of costs that is higher than you would expect if you were in an urban area,” Davis said.

The high cost of specialty care is just one factor driving up health care costs in Alaska. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how hospital profits may factor into the equation.

Salvation Army Receives Unusual Donation

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Salvation Army in Fairbanks received an unusual donation in its red collection kettles this holiday season. Salvation Army Fairbanks Major Kevin Bottjen says the anonymous gifts were dropped into several of its red collection kettles in local store fronts Dec. 23.

Bottjen says the bars, worth about $30 each, are the most unique donation he’s encountered in his Salvation Army career.

Bottjen says the small rectangular bars have embossed text and pictures, marking everything from Father’s Day to Watergate.  He suspects a single source donated the silver.

Bottjen says the bars will be sold with proceeds going to support local Salvation Army programs.  The money will be used to provide food and vouchers for clothing, furniture, and utility bills for people in need.

State Money Available For Those Looking For Future In Film

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

This year, Hollywood film studios sent crews to Alaska to shoot scenes for the movies, “On Frozen Ground” and “Big Miracle.” Both productions gave some Alaskans a chance to ham it up as extras or to work behind the scenes on the more technical aspects of movie making. State money is now available to help pave the way for those who may want a future in film.

Adventurous Family Selling Book On Nomadic Lifestyle

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The family that road a five-person bike to Fairbanks in 2010, and drove an old bus out of town this past summer, is back home in Kentucky.  The Harrsions, who go by the nickname Pedouins, are travelling the country selling a book about their nomadic lifestyle.  Bill Harrison says the family has done dozens of book signings throughout the west and mid west.

The book: “A Pedouin Life” chronicles the year Bill and Amarins Harrison, and their 3 young daughters, spent biking from Kentucky to Alaska.  The family lived in a cabin outside Fairbanks for the next 10 months, writing the book, and restoring the 50 year old bus they turned into a camper and drove south.  Harrison says it’s good to be home, but feels strange being back east.

Harrison says signing events will take them all as far as Florida this winter as they try to sell the remaining 4,000 copies of their book.  He says finances are holding out, but they’re starting to book motivational speaking engagements to help pay the bills. The family has an internet following, and receives donations from people across the country who admire their spirit of adventure.

Year In Review: Haines, Unalaska and Homer

Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

APRN and our affiliates are using this last week of 2011 to look back on some of the stories that left an impression. Some because they were fun, but some because they were difficult to report on. We start tonight in Haines.