Patients, hospitals want Dunleavy and lawmakers to work out differences on disaster declaration

A hearing room with a bunch of white dudes
The Alaska House Finance Committee discusses the bill to extend Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s disaster declaration on Monday. Representatives, from right: DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks; Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage; an aide; Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Neal Foster, D-Nome; Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Ben Carpenter, leaning forward, R-Nikiski; Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks; and Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

After Juneau resident Ted Merrell had lung cancer surgery in Seattle in early February, his wife Lucy Merrell hoped he would be able to have his follow-up scans done in Juneau. Ted’s surgeon said that wasn’t possible. 

“He said, ‘Unfortunately, because Alaska doesn’t have the COVID emergency in place any longer, he cannot do telemedicine with Alaska residents,’” Lucy Merrell said.

That’s because Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s disaster declaration was allowed to expire on Feb. 14. The House hadn’t organized in time to pass an extension Dunleavy proposed. 

Lucy Merrell said that means Ted has to fly down to Seattle for the scans.

More than five weeks after the declaration expired, Dunleavy and some legislators disagree with other lawmakers about whether to bring it back.

Dunleavy said the COVID-19 situation in Alaska has improved enough that a full disaster declaration is no longer necessary. On March 9, he described what he wanted instead. 

“I don’t think we need to be looking at a full-blown health emergency, health declaration,” he said, crediting Alaskans’ behavior with making that possible.

He added: “We’ll work with the Legislature to get a bill passed that would be very limited and very focused.”

Republican legislators — including some in the Senate majority and House minority caucuses — have worked with Dunleavy’s administration on legislation that would be more limited. It would support the telemedicine that patients like Ted Merrell benefit from; give the administration the authority to allocate and distribute vaccines; and allow the state to accept federal relief, such as the $8 million a month in food assistance to families. 

But the delays have been more than frustrating for groups that never wanted to see the disaster declaration end, including Alaska’s hospitals and most municipalities.

That’s what Jared Kosin has been hearing hospital leaders, as president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. They’re telling Kosin it makes no sense to give up some of the governor’s disaster declaration powers during the pandemic — especially the mandate that all arriving air passengers be tested for the coronavirus. 

“I understand that Alaskans are fatigued and I completely respect that — and we’re fatigued,” he said. “But if you just take a step back and look at what’s the most logical, efficient way to deal with this, we’re not taking that path right now.”

Kosin said it’s inevitable that fewer passengers are being tested without the mandate. And hospitals are concerned that’s contributed to COVID’s spread in communities like Petersburg, which experienced an outbreak after the declaration expired. 

“And then ask yourself, is that productive for getting us through the pandemic and back to a fully functional, open economy?” Kosin said. “And I think the answer is: ‘No, it is not productive. It only has the potential to set us back.’”

He added that hospital executives believe the travel testing mandate is one of the reasons Alaska has the third-lowest death rate from COVID-19 among the states.

Hospitals did get some good news recently — federal officials said the state doesn’t have to be operating under a disaster declaration for hospitals to keep flexibility that in non-COVID times would violate federal regulations, such as maintaining separate space in emergency departments for COVID patients. 

Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Nils Andreassen said many municipalities want to have a declaration in place. He said it’s harder for local leaders to set effective health measures when people are hearing a different message statewide. 

“Can we work together well across levels of government and communicate to Alaskans a common message?” he said. “Right now, it doesn’t seem to be occurring in a way that’s very effective.” 

On Monday, the House Finance Committee passed House Bill 76, which is similar to what Dunleavy wanted before the declaration expired. 

At least some Republican legislators have said they’re hearing from constituents that they don’t want the state to be under a disaster declaration. 

Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter said the bill advancing in the House attempts to force Dunleavy into a disaster declaration he doesn’t want. 

“I think that is a mistake,” he said on Monday after state health officials testified. “It is a bad precedent to set. It is not necessary, as we have heard laid out by members of his administration, to address the COVID crisis.”

As the two chambers consider different bills, some Alaskans just want the issue resolved. 

Lucy Merrell in Juneau said doing that sooner would have saved her and her husband Ted a lot of aggravation — and money on airfare to Seattle and a hotel. 

“I don’t care who does it. I just want to get it done and fixed,” she said.

The House could pass the bill that would extend the disaster declaration in the coming days. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hear the Senate version of the legislation, Senate Bill 56, on Wednesday.