Alaska News Nightly: December 29, 2011

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio

Anchorage Port Director Announces Retirement

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Bill Sheffield is stepping down from his post as director of the Port of Anchorage project.   Sheffield outlined his plans in a letter to Anchorage city officials this week.

Sheffield’s retirement is effective on Jan. 15.  The port director, and former governor of Alaska, made his announcement official in a letter to Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan on Wednesday.  Mayor Sullivan made the announcement public at a press conference Thursday, saying the 83-year-old Sheffield’s retirement was entirely Sheffield’s decision.   Sullivan had high praise for the port director.

Susitna-Watana Dam One Step Closer To Reality

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The Alaska Energy Authority has taken the first step in bringing the Susitna – Watana Hydroelectric project to reality.  Thursday, pre-application papers were filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which puts the project on a timeline for approval.

Cleveland Volcano Erupts

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

An Aleutian volcano that lies on a major international flight path has

erupted.  Cleveland volcano sent up a 15,000 foot ash cloud early this

morning.  The Alaska Volcano Observatory has been keeping tabs on Cleveland since July, when a lava dome in its crater started to grow. There are no seismic instruments on the volcano so the Observatory relies on satellite imagery to monitor it.

Geophysicist Sheryl Searcy says this is a relatively minor explosion that shouldn’t affect air travel.

But the Observatory is continuing to monitor for further eruptions via satellite imagery.  In the past Cleveland has sent up plumes of well over

20,000 feet, which is generally considered the alert threshold for aviation. The volcano lies on a major flight path and when it erupted in 2001 it sent an ash cloud up to 39,000 ft, disrupting international air travel.

The volcano is on unpopulated Chuginadak Island.  The nearest community is Nikolski.  Resident Doris Kompkoff says most people didn’t even know the volcano exploded until the local air carrier told them.

The ash cloud is moving traveling south-southeast and isn’t expected to pass over Nikolski or Unalaska.

Girl Injected With Heroin Dies

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The Anchorage girl who was injected with heroin by 26-year-old Sean Warner, died just after noon Thursday.

The Anchorage Police Department has identified the 14-year-old girl as Jena Dolstad.

APD spokesperson Anita Shell says APD’s homicide unit will be working with the district attorney’s office to review the charges against Warner.

There are currently four charges against Warner, but Shell says more may be forthcoming.

Vitus Marine Waiting For Decision On Jones Act Waiver

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Vitus Marine, the company contracted to help get fuel delivered to Nome, is hoping to hear back Friday on the status of the Jones Act waiver for the Russian tanker Renda.  The waiver is necessary for the tanker to be able to load gasoline in Dutch Harbor.  Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine says the Defense Department and Maritime Administration have weighed in to Customs and Border Protection, who ultimately makes the decision.  The waiver claims that Nome’s fuel is of indirect significance to national security.   Alaska’s congressional delegation has sent a letter urging the government to approve the waiver.

Meanwhile, the tanker is headed towards port. Smith says the Renda was 340 miles southwest of Attu this morning.  It’s expected to be in Dutch Harbor by the afternoon of Jan. 2.

Several question remain on the final routing and offloading of the fuel, but the regulatory pieces are starting to come together.  On Tuesday, Vitus submitted its delivery plans to be approved by the state, filing an amendment to its oil discharge prevention and contingency plan to incorporate the cold weather considerations.   The vessel support plan is unique as ice-capable tugs and spare barges will not be on hand – instead the Healy will assist, and land based tanks will provide space in the case of an emergency.   The Renda itself is ice capable, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation is requiring the Healy’s participation.

The plan calls for the staging of skimmers, thousands of feet of boom, pumps, sorbent pads, tank trucks, and a bobcat. Vitus has contracted with the Chadux corporation to have spill response equipment on hand.   There will be a spare 610,000 gallon tank available for emergency use even after the fuel is transferred.

John Kotula is the Manager of the Marine Vessels section for the Department of Environmental Conservation.  He says the agency now is making sure that the plans and resources will be ready.

Additional logistics plans are in place for lighting and monitoring the transfer hose if it goes across the ice.  The Renda will have extra environmental protection on board, plus three extra officers for a crew of 21.  The document says Crowley has agreed to lend equipment in Nome should it be needed.  And in addition to the Healy, the plan calls for the Coast Guard to supply a helicopter on shore, with C-130 support overhead, plus specialty personnel. Kotula says the state is in communication with private industry and government groups to make sure the pieces come together in the plan.

Vitus CEO Mark Smith says he’s confident in the plan.  He says it’s based in part on what happens on the North Slope on a regular basis. The oil spill response plan is out for public review until Jan. 3.

EPA Begins Assessment Of Bristol Bay Watershed

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

This year the Environmental Protection Agency started their assessment of the Bristol Bay Watershed – something tribal entities concerned about the development of the proposed Pebble Mine had requested. KDLG’s Daysha Eaton has this update on how the assessment is going and what we can expect in 2012.

Part 3: Urban Hospitals in Alaska Reap Huge Profits

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

A new series of reports from the Alaska Health Care Commission look at the high cost of health care in the state. Private health insurance premiums are about 30 percent higher here than in comparison states. The reports point to lots of potential reasons for the higher costs, but one surprising finding was the high profit margins for Alaska’s urban hospitals.

Alaska’s urban hospitals are very healthy businesses. According to the Health Care Commission reports, on average their profits in 2010 were 16.2 percent. The nationwide average for the same year is 6.3 percent. Dr. Noah Laufer spent the last year as a member of the Health Care Commission. He is a primary care physician in Anchorage. He says the hospital profits received a lot of attention in commission discussions.

“I think it’s a truth finding mission at least for now, a lot of raised eyebrows, a fair amount of resistance, at least from hospitals, but I think what we’re doing is getting a more realistic picture of what’s going on,” Laufer said.

The hospital with the largest profit, according to the report, was Alaska Regional, in Anchorage. Their 2010 profit is listed at 29 percent.  To put that number in perspective, the historical average profit for fortune 500 companies is less than 5 percent. Alaska Regional disputes that figure. CEO Annie Holt says because regional is run by a nationwide company, the report did not account for the cost of services provided by the owner, Hospital Corporation of America or HCA. But even factoring that in, the figure Holt comes up with is still nearly three times higher than the national average.

“Holt: About 15…15 to 17 percent. Annie Feidt: Does that seem like a high profit margin? Holt: I can’t really answer that, because I haven’t studied what it looks like nationally, I know I was told it would be comparable to our colleagues here in the Alaska market.”

Holt makes the case that the company pays millions of dollars in taxes to the city and state. And she argues that having a big corporation behind the hospital allows them to be very competitive on price.

“Many of the functions that are required for a hospital to run are actually handled electronically at our corporate or regional office, so we do keep our cost down here at Alaska Regional,” Feidt said.

Hospital profits are an important part of the health care cost picture because about 1/3 of total health care spending goes to hospitals. Profit Margins for hospitals in Alaska vary widely, according to the report. In general, rural hospital profits are much lower than in the urban areas. Two hospitals- Cordova Community Medical Center and Providence Valdez Medical Center recorded a loss for 2010. In Anchorage, Providence hospital had a profit of about 13 percent for 2010. Providence is a non-profit, so CEO Bruce Lamoureux says all of that money stays in the state.

“In the case of Providence Alaska, those margins are used in this community, for the benefit of community health,” Lamoureux said.

For 2010, Providence says it spent more than $50 million for community benefit.

Lamoureaux says there are a number of factors that drive hospital profits up in Urban Alaska. A high occupancy rate is one of them- there aren’t many idle beds. High Medicaid reimbursements is another – Alaska has generous Medicaid reimbursement rates. But Lamoureaux says everyone in the health care industry knows that belt tightening is coming. And Providence is working on programs to address that.

“We can deliver better care and we think in the long run that is not only morally the right thing to do but it prepares us for a future state where we better get better at managing costs,” Lamoureaux said.

The top executive at the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, Karen Perdue agrees that hospitals in Alaska will need to do more with less in the future. But she says there is a lot more to managing costs.

“I think the way to eliminate costs in hospital care is to keep them out of the hospital and keep them from coming back into the hospital. Can hospitals be more efficient with the money they get? yes. should they try? Absolutely,” Perdue said.

And Perdue points out that the majority of hospitals in Alaska are making profits that are in line with or below the national average. After spending many hours poring over the reports and discussing the data,  Dr. Laufer- from the Health Care Commission- comes to this conclusion.

“I’m not opposed to having healthy robust hospitals, but I would prefer to see a system that rather than focusing on growth is focused on sustainable, good health care for all us,” Laufer said.

That is the goal of the Health Care Commission as well. The hope is these reports start a dialogue on the issue that will eventually lead to some solutions.

State Gets Money For Efforts To Enroll Children In Public Health Care

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

Alaska is one of 23 states to share $296.5 million in federal payments for encouraging low-income families to enroll their children in public health programs. The bonuses were announced Wednesday. They are the government’s way of rewarding states that streamline eligibility for Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor.  The Denali KidCare office carries out the streamlining and simplification of enrollment policies in Alaska.  The State has made several improvements to streamline children’s healthcare enrollment recently, including not requiring parents to appear for face-to-face interviews, which can be difficult for working parents.

The state will get $5.66 million for its efforts to increase enrollment of children in public health programs.  The money will go back into state public health programs.  This is the third year that Alaska has received the performance bonus.

UAF Returning Over 1,000 Union Organizing Letters

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

University of Alaska Fairbanks administrators are standing behind a decision to return more than a thousand union organizing letters.

The university maintains the union letters weren’t addressed properly to members of a staff group targeted for organization.

Year In Review: Nome and Anchorage

Laureli Kinneen, KNOM – Nome

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

This week APRN and our affiliates across the state have been taking a look back at favorite and significant stories of 2011. Tonight we start in Nome.