‘So far, so good’: Alaska Department of Health and Social Services officially splits
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the state’s largest agency, officially split in two on Friday, but the work to uncouple the two new departments is far from over.
Splitting the mega-agency into the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services was first proposed in December of 2020. Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an executive order to divide the department, but it was later withdrawn when technical errors were discovered.
Dunleavy issued a second executive order in January. The Alaska Legislature’s attorneys raised some potential drafting issues with the order and with its scope, but the split was not opposed by the Legislature and the department was divided in two on July 1.
“The Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services are legally operating entities as of today,” said Commissioner Adam Crum of the new Department of Health on Friday.
The Department of Family and Community Services is set to have 1,847 employees and it will be the state’s third-largest agency after the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities and the Department of Corrections.
Newly appointed Acting Commissioner Kim Kovol will head the new agency, which will oversee the child welfare system, Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Alaska Pioneer Homes, and the Division of Juvenile Justice.
“To provide support, safety, and personal well-being for vulnerable Alaskans,” will be the agency’s mission statement.
It will be represented by a logo of colorful figures in a circle, “representing families and communities working hand-in-hand and showing the diversity both in peoples and geography of our great state.”
The new Department of Health will have 1,446 employees and it will be the state’s fourth-largest government agency. It will oversee health care services, behavioral health, senior and disability services, and Medicaid. Its mission statement will be, “Promoting the health, well-being, and self-sufficiency of Alaskans.”
Its new logo will include a musher behind a sled dog team, referencing the Nome serum run.
“Communities coming together to deliver health care remotely, that’s what we do in Alaska,” Crum said.
The stated goal of the split has been to better align delivery of essential services, and there have been hopes that could save the state money in the long term. Medicaid has been described as all-consuming for just one commissioner, now, there will be another department head who can focus on other issues.
Websites for the two departments launched on Monday, and there were teething problems with some links not working, but officials say those issues have largely been resolved. The plan throughout the monthslong process to divide the department has been to make it as seamless as possible for Alaskans who rely on its essential services.
“I hope so,” Crum said when asked whether that can be achieved. “We’ve really tried to set it up that way.”
There will still be some overlap between the two departments. The cybersecurity division will serve both agencies as it works with the federal government to ensure health care privacy rules are followed.
Last year’s cyberattack on the department, which knocked out key services for months, was also a factor in keeping the division intact. Sylvan Robb, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health, said all those services are operating again online, but there is some background coding work going on to “make us more robust.”
Finalizing the split, with all the behind-the-scenes complexities attached to that, is expected to take at least a year to be completed. There may need to be some issues that require targeted statutory changes, but for the most part, it should largely be business as usual.
“I think for the next couple of months, things are kind of going to stay pretty status quo as we close out the Department of Health and Social Services,” said Marian Sweet, assistant commissioner of the Department of Family and Community Services. “But everybody is very eager and excited at the start of this new endeavor with these two new departments, and it’s really fun times.”
Robb described some accountancy and payroll issues that will need to be resolved, but she said that “it’s all going smoothly.”
At least two partner organizations are not reporting any issues yet, but there are expectations that there could be some minor “hiccups” as the long transition takes place.
Jared Kosin, head of the newly named Alaska Hospital & Healthcare Association, said the trade group, which represents the state’s largest hospitals, doesn’t have any concerns. It has been supportive of the process, and Kosin said the dialogue with state officials has been open and transparent.
“We’re not hearing anything from our members,” he added. “And, so far, so good.”
Trevor Storrs, president and CEO of the Alaska Children’s Trust, was similarly supportive, but he stressed that this is “just the beginning” and that “fingers crossed, that it goes well.”
“The process has just started, and the conversations with the commissioner and his team have been very positive,” Storrs noted. “I know that they are continually reaching out to partners and providing a status report.”
The cost of the split had been estimated at $2.3 million to hire new 13 positions, with another 10 positions set to be reclassified. Some have been filled while interviews are ongoing for others. Those cost estimates have largely been accurate, Robb explained, apart from some small unanticipated costs, like buying a desk for the new commissioner.
“We’re mostly, mostly on track with what was put forward,” she added.
A big change is for the hundreds of state employees who are now working for one of the two new state agencies. There has been outreach, meetings, and reflections as coworkers shift roles.
“We have a lot of employees who have worked for 20 or 30 years for the Department of Health and Social Services,” Crum said. “And so, to recognize that you’re moving from one thing, that you’ve worked at this job for so long, and what are the opportunities for the next.”
Copyright 2022 KTUU. All rights reserved.