Alaska hospitals plan for first 100 out-of-state health care workers arriving next week

There are significant logistical challenges and questions how best to allocate them
Providence Alaska Medical Center.
Providence Alaska Medical Center.
Published: Sep. 24, 2021 at 4:09 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - State officials have been told that around 100 health care workers from the Lower 48 will be on the ground and working in Alaska’s hospitals early next week.

The remaining 373 personnel requested by the state are expected to be in Alaska within two weeks, said Heidi Hedberg, director of the Division of Public Health.

Jared Kosin, head of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, said that would be a “game changer” in relieving the state’s strained health care system and could even add capacity to treat an unprecedented COVID-19 case surge.

“I think we’re all holding our breath and not believing it until we see it and the quality of the staff,” he added. “But we are planning as if this is going to happen.”

The doubts come because hospitals themselves have sought health care workers from Outside, but haven’t found many available. Other states have made similar emergency requests for out-of-state health care personnel and not seen them completely filled.

Alaska’s request was made earlier in the month. The $87 million contract was signed with DLH Solutions, Inc. on Tuesday and will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Thursday, the Georgia-based contractor told state health officials that it had identified all the people needed to fulfil the contract. Each health care worker will be on short-term 30-day contracts, but Hedberg said the contractor has plans to extend the time they work in Alaska.

“They’re going to offer the opportunity to have them rotate if these individuals want to experience different communities and different work environments,” she added.

The state’s contract is for 90 days with the option for three 30-day renewals. It includes close to 300 registered nurses, over 100 certified nursing assistants and a mix of other health care personnel.

The state commerce department is now working around the clock to grant emergency courtesy licenses to get the nurses and other personnel working next week.

“The amount of logistics behind this is pretty extraordinary,” Kosin said.

There is the need to train workers, get background checks and fingerprinting completed and to get personnel up to speed with the tribal health care system. And then there’s the rapidly changing picture of need.

In early September, state hospitals submitted requests for staff. Providence Alaska Medical Center asked for 97 nurses with different specializations and 44 certified nursing assistants.

In the past month, the COVID-19 situation in Alaska has worsened. Crisis standards of care have been enabled statewide and hot spots have changed, meaning the personnel might be sent to different facilities as needed.

A meeting was held on Thursday between hospital administrators, state officials and representatives from DLH Solutions. Kosin said it was inspiring to hear the heads of hospitals working together with some essentially withdrawing their personnel requests, even though they still need them, because other hospitals needed workers more.

There are different ideas about how these workers can best be allocated across Alaska.

“One school of thought is that if you could clear out Anchorage, extend it and build it up, you can facilitate transfers in,” Kosin said. “It might help the whole system speed up.”

Anchorage has the state’s largest hospitals with the specialist care that other hospitals rely on. The strained system has meant transfers from rural Alaska have been delayed, sometimes with tragic results.

That could see the majority of the first wave of these health care workers stay in Anchorage, Kosin said, with some then sent to hard hit areas like the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Final decisions will be made through the weekend, he added.

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