Across from the Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome, construction on the new Wellness Center continues. But it’s continuing without financial help from the State of Alaska, after Governor Mike Dunleavy held firm to his line-item veto of $10 million for building substance abuse treatment facilities.
Lance Johnson, the Director of Behavioral Health Services for Norton Sound Health Corporation, calls the potential funding loss “unfortunate.”
“There was no guarantee that Norton Sound Health Corporation was going to get a cut of that money, although signs looked really positive towards that,” he said. “Upwards of possibly $5 million.”
Matt Shuckerow, Gov. Dunleavy’s press secretary, explained that the $10 million for statewide addiction treatment facilities was cut because the money wasn’t attached to any specific projects or plans.
“Unfortunately, based on the fiscal environment now, we have to add additional scrutiny and say, ‘What would the plans be? Who would be the partners?’ before we can release $10 million,” he said.
That isn’t the case, though, in Nome, where an addiction treatment facility not only has plans and partners, but its metal framework is already in the ground.
Johnson says that, obviously, that state money would have helped reduce the cost of construction. But regardless, construction will continue as always planned.
“However, the board of Norton Sound Health Corporation put the pilings in the ground for the Wellness Center because they recognized a need throughout the region for such a facility,” he said.
According to Johnson, funding to build the Wellness Center is coming from sources like the Denali Commission and Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation.
The Wellness Center, currently under construction in Nome, is meant to be a facility where individuals can receive substance misuse treatment, BHS services, and will also have a sobering center.
Right now, Johnson says many individuals in the Bering Strait region have to go elsewhere to receive the level of treatment they require. When the facility is done in roughly two years, he says people will be able to get the care they need while staying closer to home.
“This wellness center is going to relieve some of the burden on the overtaxed system that’s already in Anchorage, in Fairbanks, in some of our metropolitan areas,” he said. “You would think that the State of Alaska would be very interested in being a partner in that.”
Shuckerow says the governor’s administration does want to support mental health and addiction treatments but is looking to do so in other ways, partially through the federal government.
“One of the ways they’re looking at that is through what’s called an 11-15 waiver from the federal government,” Shuckerow said. “And that would give the State of Alaska a certain level of flexibility.”
An 11-15 waiver is a Medicaid program that allows states more flexibility and creativity under federal guidelines to determine what services the state wants Medicaid to cover. Alaska applied for that in 2018. In July of this year, the state was approved for a portion of that waiver to cover substance use disorders. The portion of the waiver covering behavioral health is still under review.
That comes alongside other attempts by the Dunleavy administration to cut $159.9 million to Medicaid. Although, as Alaska Public Media reported, policy experts say those cuts may not be feasible.
This year, Dunleavy also made cuts to the Comprehensive Behavioral Health grant. Johnson says that BHS at Norton Sound did get a grant reduction, but he recognizes that their reduction might be less significant than it is to smaller providers around the state.
“I think about our other partners around the state that depend on that to operate. If they shut down, that taxes the system even more. We may see more people from out of region trying to come here for services.”
Matt Shuckerow did not comment specifically on reductions to that grant program.
Johnson continues to look for other funding sources, particularly federal grants. He wants to increase services at the day shelter and bring in more counselors and treatment for residents at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center as well as the Seaside Center in Nome.
“We’re going to continue to not only provide the services that we have but continue to expand the services to better serve the people.”
At this time, construction for the Norton Sound Wellness Center is on schedule. The exterior is set to be finished by late fall. Then, they will do work on the interior part of the building, with operations set to begin in early 2021.