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Alaska lawmakers get first look at the governor’s 106-page executive order to split DHSS

Alaska State Capitol
Alaska State Capitol(N/A)
Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 8:14 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Lawmakers and health care providers are reviewing the governor’s 106-page executive order that would split the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in two.

Commissioner Adam Crum of the Department of Health and Social Services said that the department is considered a “mega agency.” It’s the state’s largest department and is in charge of running Medicaid, public assistance programs, foster care, Pioneer Homes and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

Splitting it into the Department of Health and the Department of Community and Family Services would allow managers, and people working in 13 newly created positions, to focus their energies in targeted ways, Crum said.

The governor spoke about the idea of splitting the department in late December. Last week, his executive order was introduced before the Legislature.

The proposal would cost $4.2 million to run a second commissioner’s office, but the Dunleavy administration officials say that longer-term savings are possible.

Crum presented to the Senate Finance Committee last Thursday about the order, showing recent savings made to the department’s budget. The governor’s Department of Health budget for the fiscal year starting in July has been shrunk by $12 million in state dollars compared to this fiscal year’s budget.

The easy cuts have been made to Medicaid, Crum said on Tuesday, but working with a variety of stakeholders could see savings made across the board.

“These nickels and dimes, when you’re talking in the tens of millions, will really add up over time,” he added.

But, splitting the state’s largest department in two is not primarily about saving money, it’s about delivering services in better ways, Crum said.

He explained that Medicaid often becomes a focus of the administration’s time and energy at the detriment of other responsibilities.

“These other groups don’t necessarily get the time and attention that they need,” Crum added.

Some health care providers and community groups expressed skepticism or concern in January about the proposal. Jared Kosin, the CEO and president of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, said on Tuesday that his organization is withholding judgement as it’s still reviewing the proposal.

The Juneau Empire reported that some tribal health care providers had been worried about the possible implications to a landmark agreement that gives tribal groups more control in child welfare.

At that time, Dunleavy administration officials said “there is no substantive change or impact to the compact with the departmental split.”

Crum said on Tuesday that there had been some confusion. There were separate conversations going on with tribal groups about proposals to make changes to the Office of Children’s Services, but the executive order is not connected to that.

The order states that the Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact “remains in effect” and shall be enforced by the new agency.

Spokespeople for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the Alaska Native Health Board and Tanana Chiefs Conference did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, chairs the Senate Health and Social Services Committee. He welcomed the Dunleavy administration’s idea of splitting the department in two, suggesting that it is currently too large and too unwieldy.

Wilson said at “first glance” that the Dunleavy administration’s proposal looked good, but that it would be thoroughly vetted by the Legislature.

Under the Alaska Constitution, the Legislature has 60 days to consider an executive order. A joint session could be held and a simple majority could pass a resolution, disapproving of the order. If that resolution were to pass, the order would be rejected.

If that resolution didn’t pass, or if the Legislature does nothing, the proposed changes would go into effect on July 1.

Crum said that the order would not see any essential services cut. The goal would be for there to be no discernible changes for Alaskans between June 30 and July 1.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the changes being proposed, but he is looking to see what impacts they could make. He is asking that the Legislature’s attorneys investigate whether the order is too broad and whether it would essentially create new laws which is the Legislature’s responsibility.

“I just don’t see how this is constitutional that a governor can issue a 106-page order, that’s basically a bill, and everything is changing legislation,” Wielechowski said last Wednesday. “I don’t see how this is possibly constitutional.”

Maria Bahr, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, said the Alaska Constitution grants the governor broad authority to reorganize departments. This order “does not go beyond this authority,” she said.

Several Alaska governors have used executive orders to reorganize departments in the past.

Former Gov. Jay Hammond issued an executive order in 1977 that merged two departments to form the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Then-Gov. Bill Sheffield issued an executive order in 1984 to make the Department of Corrections into its own separate department.

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