Some Senate Republicans are skeptical of extending the COVID-19 disaster declaration
Alaska health care providers say the declaration is critical
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Some Senate Republicans have expressed skepticism about extending the COVID-19 disaster declaration.
The governor introduced Senate Bill 56 which would extend the current disaster declaration into the fall, allowing for his existing pandemic mandates to remain in effect. It would also allow health care workers to continue providing care in ways deemed to be critical to combating the virus.
The governor’s current disaster declaration is set to expire on Feb. 14. Commissioner Adam Crum of the Department of Health and Social Services said there are no plans to issue another disaster declaration if the Legislature fails to extend the one that the governor issued in January.
Republican Sens. Mia Costello of Anchorage, Shelley Hughes of Palmer and Lora Reinbold of Eagle River expressed doubts about whether the COVID-19 disaster declaration should be in place into the fall.
During a testy Senate Health and Social Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, members of the Dunleavy administration were asked repeatedly whether other legislation could be passed that would allow critical protections to stay in place without a disaster declaration.
Officials testified that some protections could, but Crum said that SB 56 was the best vehicle to get them all passed quickly. Crum did say, among other effects, that allowing the declaration to expire would negatively impact how Alaska distributes vaccinations.
“We would probably fall to the back of the pack when it comes to vaccinations as a whole,” he said. “All of the safety metrics where Alaska leads, we would probably fall way down the pack.”
Jared Kosin, the CEO of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, was scheduled to speak on Tuesday but the committee ran out of time. Health care providers provided written testimony to the committee, supporting extending the disaster declaration into the fall.
Kosin said on Wednesday that ending the disaster declaration would end critical federal waivers and bring “chaos and uncertainty” to the health care system as it tries to combat COVID-19.
“In our minds, in the health care world, a declaration is absolutely necessary,” he added.
Kosin described tangible consequences in letting the declaration expire as he also argued in November. Some of those impacts include limiting telehealth, potentially limiting federal funding Alaska receives, closing alternate care sites, slowing down licensing for health care workers and limiting surge capacity.
The Alaska National Guard has also been used for contact tracing and could be used for vaccine distribution. Kosin said that could also be in doubt if Alaska lets to declaration expire.
The Alaska Municipal League also urged the Dunleavy administration to extend the disaster declaration in November, saying local governments have used the state’s declaration to impose their own rules and to ensure the “adequate flow of resources.”
Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, had some fiery exchanges with Crum on Tuesday.
“How can you justify extending this?” Reinbold asked. “Knowing how many businesses are suffering, how many children are suffering, how many rights are being violated. How can you justify this?”
School districts are deciding whether schools should open or close and no provisions in the governor’s current disaster declaration close businesses.
Ending the disaster declaration would also not impact what happens in cities like Anchorage and Juneau which have their own health powers and write their own COVID-19 rules.
Costello said she had not heard a compelling reason to extend the disaster declaration.
She said the focus for lawmakers “should be keeping Alaskans healthy and safe,” but argued if the Legislature extended the disaster declaration into the fall that it would be sending a message to Alaskans. “The message that would be sent by extending it to that degree is something I think should definitely be looked at,” she added.
Costello spoke to Legislative Research and said that no other state has passed measures to extend their COVID-19 disaster declarations for so long.
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said extending the declaration into the fall is “problematic.” He said the committee hearings would evaluate what are essential protections during the pandemic and whether the declaration itself is necessary.
The House of Representatives is still not organized, which could prevent any COVID-19 disaster bill from passing before the current declaration expires on Feb. 14. A new bill could be made to be retroactive to that end date.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich believes it has been unconstitutional for the governor to repeatedly issue disaster declarations, but said it was essential to ensure health care workers can keep providing care during the pandemic. Begich said he thought it would be likely that a separate COVID-19 bill would pass through the Legislature and that the current disaster declaration would be allowed to expire.
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