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Reorganizing Alaska DHSS: The community weighs in

Seal of the State of Alaska outside the State Office Building in Juneau. (07/29/20).
Seal of the State of Alaska outside the State Office Building in Juneau. (07/29/20).(KTUU)
Published: Jan. 13, 2021 at 3:46 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In December 2020, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that he’s splitting the state’s health department in two. The governor, along with the Department Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum, said the department is too big and needs to be focused to better serve Alaskans. The two departments would be a department of health, and a department of family and community services.

In a meeting on Wednesday, the House Health and Social Services Committee held a discussion on the governor’s plans to split DHSS into these two departments. Impacts of child welfare in the state was the focus, and many community members weighed in on the change and talked about the impacts of reorganization. Many had the same feelings: they feel they don’t know enough about what’s happening and would like the department to join the discussion on impacts to Alaska.

Lynn Biggs, a senior director with Casey Family Programs, says their organization has departments in all 50 states and says this way of structuring DHSS has both pros and cons.

“The research shows that there is really no evidence of an ideal organizational structure, and as you know governors and state legislators have long reorganized in an effort to improve outcome,” says Biggs. “The research is lacking, but the limited research that does exist from experience does tell us that there is no ideal structure, every approach has pros and cons.”

Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association, says they support any efforts to improve services and efficiency, so long as the changes abide by the contract that has been signed with the state.

“Like others, we don’t have a lot of clarity about this proposal or how it would impact the dedicated public workers in this department,” Metcalfe says. “I would note that from listening to the testimony of the other folks here — that we are in agreement, that there wasn’t any consultation or bringing together of folks to ask their opinions before this happened. We were told about this after it happened.”

The last thing they want, Metcalfe says, is changes coming as a detriment to Alaska and Alaskans. One recurring topic of Wednesday’s meeting was transparency.

“I think that part of what makes government work is when the different branches of government are talking to each other and when they’re talking to the public, and I think that has to happen for this to work. It hasn’t happened yet, it seems to be a done deal, and I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the state of Alaska when you don’t engage your stakeholders and business partners.”

“I believe that this is coming from a place of good intent and trying to improve the system, I just don’t think it’s the solution or fix in terms of gaining public trust, especially considering timing and lack of input from stakeholders,” says Amanda Metivier with Facing Foster Care in Alaska.

Metivier says she feels like this is a big proposal for people who are just trying to get through day-to-day life.

“In terms of what’s happening right now with the pandemic, is this the time to move forward for reorganization? So I think other things to consider is, what is the evidence base for this,” Metivier asks.

Dunleavy and Crum declined to attend Wednesday’s discussion but will be invited to future discussions on the matter.

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