Premera promises $5.7M to rural Alaska health care programs

Premera Blue Cross CEO and President Jeff Roe, speaking at ANTHC in Anchorage to announce $5.7 million in grants for rural healthcare initiatives in Alaska, on Oct. 29, 2019. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

The health insurance company Premera is investing nearly $6 million in improving rural health care in Alaska.

During a Tuesday morning press conference at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Anchorage campus, the company and its local partners outlined the plan, which includes increasing the number of home-grown nurses.

Last year, Premera pledged to spend $100 million around the country on health care in rural areas. In the time since, the company worked with non-profits in Alaska, touring communities off the road system to figure out how that money could be most effective. Now, they think they can help level some of the unequal health outcomes.

“We have an opportunity here to close the gap in care for rural Alaskans,” said Premera CEO Jeff Roe.

The company believes it can have maximum impact by training more nurses, integrating behavioral health into primary care, and conducting better mental health evaluations for residents living off the road system before they hit a crisis point.

A new program overseen by the Rasmuson Foundation will award $3 million in grants for equipment and capital improvements at rural clinics and hospitals. ANTHC is getting $700,000 to finish its Education and Development Center in Anchorage, which supports the village health aide program. Facilities in Nome, Bethel, and Fairbanks are each slated to get $100,000 to help with upgrades in support of the same program.

One of the investments that’s likely to have substantial long-term impacts is a partnership with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Health. Citing figures from Alaska’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said the state needs 502 registered nurses over the next five years.

“We think we have the solution, and that is to grow our own health care workforce right here in Alaska,” Sandeen said.

The university’s nursing program will receive $1.77 million to expand, focusing particularly on recruiting and retaining Alaska Native nurses. Rural campuses in Ketchikan, Bethel and Dillingham will receive funding to expand their nursing programs. The hope is that by training local talent, more nurses will continue living in the Bush, cutting down on high rates of turnover, among other problems.

That’s true for nursing student Robyn Chiklak, who grew up in Dillingham, is training there and sees a big advantage in developing professionals who already know the region.

“It’s not somebody that’s going to come for two weeks and leave again,” Chiklak said. “They know the people, they know the community. That helps a lot.”

Chiklak is in her second of four semesters. She has always wanted to be a nurse, and would have been willing to come to Anchorage to make that dream happen. But she says it’s much better to get her degree while still living in Dillingham, where she has a support system, and doesn’t have to live in a dorm or deal with finding a vehicle. Chiklak is in the fourth cohort of nurses to train locally since UAA started its outreach program in Dillingham, and she says the program is working.

“A lot of the previous graduates stayed in Dillingham,” she said. “That’s their home, as well, and their community. And it’s nice to see them come back and work at the hospital. It’s inspiring, it’s motivating.”

The goal of the grant is to draw in 238 new nursing students in the next five years, and graduate more than 50 a year on into the future.