In Haines, ferry chaos has made medical travel costs skyrocket

A passenger on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. (Flickr Creative Commons – supafly)

Haines has the oldest population of any borough in Alaska. The median age is just over 48 years old.  

There’s a thriving retirement community and many local services for seniors. 

James Studley is the executive director of Haines Assisted Living. He said the facility offers an option for seniors to receive care in their hometown rather than moving to a larger city.

“When people leave their hometown and they get away from their friends and that contact of family that they might have, their health degenerates rather quickly,” Studley said.

Most of the time, seniors in Haines can take care of their medical needs at the local clinic operated by Southeast Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC. Studley said sometimes they may need to go to a larger hospital with more resources. 

“There’s a couple of instances where they have specialized doctors in a particular field that SEARHC wouldn’t have and there’s also certain tests that can be done in Juneau but not in Haines,” he said.

When seniors need to get to Juneau for those specialized appointments they have to travel by boat or plane. If they have mobility issues, that limits their transportation options. 

“You know a lot of the elders have walkers and they’re in wheelchairs and they don’t have the ability to just get around on an airplane, even our small puddle jumpers that we have here,” Studley said. “The only option they have is a ferry.”

The Alaska Marine Highway System has not provided service to Haines for more than three weeks. This has made it extremely difficult for people with mobility issues to travel from Haines for medical care. 

Studley said the lack of reliable transportation affected him personally. 

Recently his daughter Nicole broke her leg and had to get flown to Anchorage for treatment. She left the hospital in a wheelchair. Studley said the two of them got stuck in Juneau for 10 days last month while trying to return to Haines. 

Nicole couldn’t fly on a regular passenger plane, he said, so they had to charter a private flight with a local pilot to get home. 

“That’s a pretty expensive flight, and what other option would you have? That’s something that comes out of pocket. There’s no insurance for that,” he said.

Waiting in Juneau until marine transportation becomes available isn’t any cheaper. 

Studley said getting stuck there can be particularly risky for people who rely on local services in Haines for their care. 

“Staying in Juneau at a motel where there is no help or maybe at a friend’s house where they have difficult living conditions but they don’t have any other option, it can be a life-threatening situation,” he said.

Margaret Sebens works for Southeast Alaska Independent Living in Haines. The organization assists and advocates for seniors and people with disabilities. At a recent rally for ferry service she shared anecdotes about Haines residents with mobility issues missing appointments and struggling to cover the cost of staying in Juneau when transportation is not available.

“This is severely impacting people with disabilities and senior citizens, and we need to make change happen,” Sebens said. 

The Alaska Marine Highway System has cancelled ferry service in most of Southeast Alaska until March. At a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee last week, Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon said it is possible the wait may be even longer. 

“There’s a good likelihood from the press release yesterday that we will not have service in Southeast in March,” MacKinnon said.

In the meantime, DOT has been exploring options for chartering private marine transportation services such as Allen Marine.