Federal health official praises Kenaitze programs

Alaska got a glowing report in a checkup from a top federal health care official. Though there are issues that need further treatment and support, communities showed a healthy dose of innovation in delivery and integration of care.

The Dena'ina Wellness Center in Kenai. (Photo courtesy of the Redoubt Reporter)
The Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai. (Photo courtesy of the Redoubt Reporter)

Mary Wakefield, acting deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, toured Alaska from Aug. 1 to 4, visiting Barrow, Fairbanks, Circle, Anchorage and Kenai. But she wasn’t bringing a prescription from Washington. Instead, she got ideas for the treatment of health care in rural communities that can be brought to other areas of the country.

“I’ve seen some phenomenal examples of Alaska Native and American Indian communities that are really focused on comprehensive services that are delivered effectively and very efficiently on behalf of their communities,” wakefield said. “So there’s some wonderful examples to draw from this state and from these communities and try to think about how we might apply some of these examples in other parts of the United States.”

HHS provides funding for a wide range of community services. A big part of the department’s presence in Alaska is through Indian Health Services, which funds facilities and programs administered through Native tribes throughout the state.

During her visit to Kenai on Aug. 4, Dr. Wakefield toured the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Head Start program, elder center, tribal court and Dena’ina Wellness Center, which offers medical and dental care, behavioral health services and a wide variety of general health and wellness programs. The center provides care to Alaska Native and American Indian people. Behavioral health services are available to anyone in the community.

Jaylene Peterson, executive director of the Kenaitze Tribe, said it was an honor to meet with Dr. Wakefield.

“This is an unprecedented visit,” Peterson said. “It was an amazing time that we were able to share with the deputy secretary, and we were able to show her what we’ve been able to accomplish with funds that have not always met the true need. So we’ve been blessed by this trip. I believe that she has learned much about the Alaskan community and why things are so different and more challenging here in an Alaskan setting.”

Peterson hopes the visit will help remove some stumbling blocks that come with HHS funding. She said that some of the reporting and training requirements can be onerous.

“I don’t disagree that we should be accountable for the funds that we receive, but sometimes it can be a lot more than should be required,” Peterson said. “So, there are ways that I believe that we can be smarter with our money.”

Primarily, though, the tribe wanted to show its holistic approach to health care.

“It’s just phenomenal. The leadership, the commitment, the approach that is innovative in terms of the integration of a wide range of services on behalf of the people who are served here is absolutely exceptional,” Wakefield said.

Before her trip to Kenai, Wakefield participated in a summit in Wasilla on opioid abuse.

“It is an absolute epidemic in every state the across the country, including right here in Alaska,” Wakefield said. “And there are some pretty serious problems in communities within the state that are really adversely impacting families and putting special burdens on law enforcement, (and) special burdens on health care providers.”

She said the Obama Administration is focusing efforts on making sure health care providers have the clinical skills necessary when prescribing opioids, closing the gap between people who want treatment and access to that care, and making sure people who have overdosed have immediate access to life-saving medications.

Among its many social services, the Kenaitze Tribe offers a chemical dependency recovery program.