Federal Grants Boost Services at Aleutian-Pribilof Clinics

Community health centers in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands will get at least $600,000 in federal grant money for new services this year. The grants are aimed in part at helping new patients who enrolled in health plans under the Affordable Care Act.

But there aren’t many of those in the Aleutian Islands. Instead, providers will use the money for the patients they already have.

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Jennifer Harrison oversees clinics from Whittier to Adak as executive director of Eastern Aleutian Tribes. She estimates they only had about 11 patients sign up for new health plans on the federal marketplace.

“They’re probably people that were under the self-pay category and that have gotten insurance now. That would be my guess,” Harrison says. “Because we’ve kind of already been seeing everybody in all the communities, so I don’t think it’s necessarily bringing in a new person through the door. It’s just helping that person pay for the services.”

So Harrison’s organization will use their $196,000-dollar grant to contract with a traveling optometrist and physical therapist. They’ll also set up a fund to pay to send people to residential drug and alcohol treatment centers, which right now, Harrison says isn’t happening:

“It’s really this weird gap in services throughout the state — it’s not something the Indian Health Service really supports in a big way, and it’s been really hard for people to get substance abuse treatment,” Harrison says. “Because often, they don’t have a job because of the substance abuse, so then they don’t have the insurance, so there’s nobody to help pay for it.”

Most of Eastern Aleutian Tribes’ patients are insured by the Indian Health Service. Harrison says they can make referrals for detox programs, but until now, they haven’t been able to cover the programs’ costs.

The federal grants will also pay for a mid-level provider on the Pribilof island of St. George for the first time. The Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association is getting a $190,000 grant to help out the clinic there.

Like at Eastern Aleutian Tribes, APIA health administrator Jessica Mata-Rukovishnikoff also says the money will mainly serve current patients — increasing “access to a higher level of service.” But she does say most of St. George’s hundred or so residents enrolled in federal health plans. APIA got another grant to make that happen.

As enrollments go, Unalaska is the outlier in the region — the town’s clinic didn’t have any patients sign up for federal health care. Most of Iliuliuk Family & Health Services’ clients use commercial insurance, or pay out of pocket. Clinic director Eileen Conlon-Scott says those patients haven’t been able to afford to enroll in federal health plans.

“Well, if we could get them on the insurance rolls, our revenues would go up,” Scott says. “But understandably, they don’t have $500 a month to pay in insurance.”

So she says her clinic will use their federal grant like everyone else. They’re getting between $200,000 and $400,000 to pay for new medical equipment and new visiting specialists. It’ll mean more care for the people they’re already treating — and for now, it’ll be at the same price as before.

For the full list of grant recipients in Alaska, click here.