Eldred Rock wind speed and wind direction sensors have not been working for a couple of weeks, frustrating both the Lynn Canal gillnet fleet and National Weather Service.
The instruments record weather conditions used on NOAA weather radio observations and in forecasts, important information for Lynn Canal mariners and pilots.
Warning Coordination Meteorologist Joel Curtis says the agency wants it fixed, too, but the rock is not an easy place to reach.
“That equipment is really, really hard to service. It’s up on a rock and it’s out in the middle of Lynn Canal, away from ports and everything else,” he says. “You have to have every part in the world with you when you go there because you only have one shot at fixing it. It’s not the kind of place you’re going to say, ‘oh, I’ll just come back tomorrow.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
NOAA weather radio is often more handy, but Eldred Rock wind speed and direction are still available from the Marine Exchange website.
“Wind speed, wind direction, matter of fact the whole sensor is not reporting,” Curtis says. “That’s been off and on a big problem this summer.”
He says the weather service is responsible for equipment repair at all its stations. Eldred Rock and Lincoln Rock are on a long list of other locations with problems.
The historic Eldred Rock is home to a once-manned lighthouse, activated in 1906. The last human observer left the rock in 1973, when the beacon was automated.
Soggy skies did little to dampen enthusiasm on the first day of the Alaska State Fair in Palmer on Thursday.
President Barack Obama wants to tie college rankings to how affordable they are and whether students are landing in the workforce after graduation.
As APRN’s Peter Granitz reports, some Alaska education leaders welcome the plans, but worry about implementation.
Every summer, a million tourists pass through Southeast Alaska. It’s a boon to local retailers, who rely on the extra customers to make up for slower winter months. But with lots money being spent, business can get dirty. This spring, the state responded to complaints that onboard shopping experts were misleading passengers and smearing local stores by hitting these programs with a new set of rules. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez wanted to find out if the new regulations are actually working.
Just about every other store in Juneau’s shopping district sells jewelry. They advertise diamonds and tanzanite, steep discounts and free charms. But a sign on one storefront stands out: “Don’t see us on your cruise ship map??? We’d rather not give your cruise ship a kickback!!”
MEHAN: We put up that sign because a lot of people were unaware of the gimmicks that were going on the cruise lines …
Of the half dozen local business owners I talked to about these kickbacks, Mehan was the only who would agree to be quoted. Even then, he wouldn’t let me use his real name, out of fear of getting blackballed by the cruise industry.
Years ago, Mehan used to pay $25,000 plus 10 percent of sales to be part of the cruise shopping programs. The shopping programs are run by media companies, who then pay the cruise lines to have their employees — known as “port lecturers” — on board the ship. These port lecturers are supposed to work like shopping ambassadors, guiding tourists to trusted retailers. But even though Mehan was part of their program, customers were still steered to chains with stronger ties to the industry. So he stopped paying. Then Mehan started hearing troubling things from passengers.
“‘We were told to only go to certain stores because the other stores are people who sometimes don’t sell the real stuff and we are not responsible for it,’ and stuff like that,” says Mehan. “So that’s like a scare factor.
These kinds of complaints got so bad that the State of Alaska started investigating the companies who hire the port lecturers and give the cruise lines a cut of their earnings to have them on board.
Ed Sniffen handles consumer protection for the state, and he says it wasn’t just local businesses who were upset. Passengers were also saying they’d been ripped off.
“‘Hey, I bought this diamond at this shop, and they told me that it was a two-karat something, and I paid $20,000 for it. When I got it back home and had it appraised, it was really only worth $5,000.’ You know, some of those kinds of things,” says Sniffen.
Port lecturers operate on cruises across the world, but Alaska is the first place to crack down on their employers.
In February, the state agreed to a $200,000 settlement with Onboard Media, Royal Media Partners, and the PPI Group — the three Florida-based companies that put port lecturers on Alaska cruise voyages. The companies didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing, but they did have to start requiring port lecturers to disclose that they didn’t work for the cruise lines and that what they were doing was a type of advertising. They were also prohibited from disparaging stores that didn’t participate in their programs and from making misleading statements about sale prices and return policies.
None of the major cruise lines that operate in Alaska — Carnival, Princess, Holland America, and Norwegian — responded to emails asking about their relationship with port lecturers. Royal Media Partners and the PPI Group also ignored interview requests. Only Onboard Media answered questions about the settlement terms.
“[The settlement] simply formalized policies that Onboard Media has always followed,” wrote Noelle Sipos, a spokesperson for Onboard Media, in an e-mail. She added that the company is complying with all of Alaska regulations, but that they’re not applying the state’s rules to other places.
“The program in each region is tailored to support the requirements of the local authorities,” wrote Sipos.
So, are these regulations doing anything? Right now, the attorney general’s office is reviewing about 70 recordings of port lecturers in action, and it looks like filming them is helping. Sniffen says while things aren’t suddenly perfect, most of the feedback on the ground has been good.
“What we’re hearing is that generally things are better. That things have gotten a little cleaner,” says Sniffen. “Passengers aren’t saying the things that they used to say.”
Before Cindy Dollar gets off her cruise ship, she’s given a shopping map, a bunch of coupons, and a tote bag for her haul. She’s vacationing from Texas, and she says there’s serious pressure to spend.
“Yeah, it’s constant,” says Dollar. “I mean if you let yourself, you can be barraged with the whole shopping experience on the ship.”
From what she’s seen, it looks like the port lecturers are following the state’s new rules. They’re putting disclaimers on promotional materials, and reading from scripts that describe their presentations as marketing. They’re still pushy, but at least you know where they’re coming from.
And so far, their pitch doesn’t seem to be working on her. Dollar doesn’t plan on buying from the stores that are being hyped up, and she definitely isn’t thinking about making any huge purchases.
“I plan to bring back a few souvenirs for family and my petsitter,” Dollars laughs.
She thinks a local gift shop will do the trick.
The Celebrity cruise ship Millennium returned to Ketchikan Sunday night after mechanical problems. Police responded to the ship late Tuesday night following reports of unruly passengers.
Ketchikan police responded Tuesday night to several emergency calls from passengers on board the stranded Celebrity ship Millennium. Apparently, the callers thought there was going to be a riot.
Here’s police chief Alan Bengaard: “We, the police department, received three 911 calls from passengers on the MV Millennium who stated that people were getting unruly on board the ship, and they believed a riot was about to begin. Officers responded to the ship, met with ship security and advised them of the 911 calls. Ship security and officers contacted approximately 500 guests on the third floor of the vessel, and subsequently peace was restored and officers left.”
Bengaard says those 500 people were upset about Celebrity Cruise’s plans for where they would go when flown out of Ketchikan.
“The officers … were given the information that some of the passengers were unhappy with the miscommunication between them and the cruise line, and ultimately where their final destination was going to be,” he said. “Initially, evidentially, they were told they were going to be flown to Anchorage, and plans had changed and some were upset with that.”
Bengaard says he believes the passengers will instead be flown to Vancouver.
Cynthia Martinez, director of corporate communications for Celebrity, responded via email to a request for comment. She says she talked with ship security officers, who claim that local police came to the pier about midnight Tuesday in response to 911 calls, but that police did not board the ship. Martinez says that ship security considers the mood on board as “calm.”
She did not offer further comment.
The 965-foot Millennium, with a passenger capacity of about 2,000, has been stuck in Ketchikan since Sunday evening, when it was forced to return to port due to a faulty propeller.
Passengers aboard the Millennium are leaving Ketchikan via chartered flights arranged by Celebrity. They also received full refunds and vouchers toward a future cruise.
The military has signed off on an expansion plan for Alaska training operations and areas. The Alaskan Command, representing the Army and Air Force, published its formal record of decision Tuesday on changes to the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, or “J-PARC”.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is taking a new approach to helping students struggling with depression and other mental health problems that can lead to suicide. U.A.F. Associate Director of Counseling Tony Rousmaniere says a $5,000 grant from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will pay for an on line outreach program.
A resolution to mitigate conflict between dog owners and trappers could pass easily during tonight’s Regular Borough Assembly meeting. The item is on the consent agenda and unless an assembly member disagrees, two new areas will be established for dog training within the borough. It’s a resolution that took two years’ worth of discussion between the Alaska Trapper’s Association and the Borough Trails Advisory Commission.
The resolution designates the Isberg Recreation area in northwest Fairbanks as well as an area directly south of Salcha Elementary School as places where people can free run their dogs. Resolution sponsor and Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblyman Karl Kassel says the Borough is not creating two new dogs parks, however. Instead, he says the areas will be set up specifically for canine training. “Things like hunting dogs and search and rescue dogs,” he explains, “that need to free run to perform their duties and obviously need to be trained properly to perform their duties. To do that in an area safely, you wanna be confidents there aren’t a lot of traps where the dogs are running loose.” Kassel serves as a liason between the Assembly and the Borough’s Trails Advisory Commission. He says the resolution will not put an end to trapping within the Borough. “Trapping and the regulation of trapping is a Fish and Game regulation,” he says, “It’s not a borough function. We’re not trying to regulate trapping. The intention here is to not have any sport of significant or adverse effect on any sort of activity that’s already going on, and to use this as a tool to educate the public a little bit more.”
The resolution doesn’t make mention of sled dogs, but Kassel says that’s because the designated training areas aren’t large enough for those activities like mushing and skijoring. “Typically, a dog team would train longer miles and they may pass through these areas,” Kassel says, “The hundred mile loop trail goes through the Iceberg Recreation Area, so somebody may go through the area while they are training dogs, but they would be outside of these areas for more time than they would be within these areas. We still share some concerns obviously that while training off leash is allowed, there are probably going to be people who just go and let dogs run loose.”
The resolution also doesn’t mention other popular trail systems in the borough, where both recreation and trapping take place. Melissa Head is a long time Borough resident. She lost her dog to a trap near the Goldstream Valley last winter. She supports the resolution, but she says it doesn’t go far enough.
“It represents a lot of work that has been done between the ATA and the Borough’s Trails Advisory Commission,” says Head, “but it’s not just enough to say that certain areas are off limits. Dog owners can encounter traps almost anywhere in the borough, often in trails, on the edge of trails, where even leashed dogs can be harmed.”
Pete Buist is a lifelong trapper and a former [president of the Alaska Trapper’s Association. He says most conflicts between dog owners and trappers are not the fault of trappers. “It will be an ongoing problem until dog owners start obeying the law,” says Buist. Borough code does prohibit running dogs off leash, but there is a section in the code that allows for off-leash training. Buist says he understands the resolution is the best option for compromise between all concerned parties. “We are willing to give up some ground where it would otherwise be legal for trapping, because we are trappers who are your friends and neighbors and the Alaska Trapper’s Association is the organized version of that,” Buist says. “We still share some concern obviously that while training off leash is allowed, there are probably gonna people there who just let their dogs run loose.”
ATA members have agreed to voluntarily curtail trapping in the designated dog training areas. Karl Kassel says enforcement will fall under the responsibility of the Borough Administration.
Peter Nestler has been hooked on jumping rope since second grade, when he saw an exhibition at Glacier Valley Elementary School.
In third grade, he joined the Juneau Jumpers. By the time he finished high school, he had helped his team win seven world championships.
Now 33 and living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Nestler has come full circle. He’ll perform his world class rope and unicycle skills for a new generation at Glacier Valley on Friday.
“It’s where I learned to jump rope,” he said. “I was on the team there, pretty much my entire learning curve was at Glacier Valley. So it’s kind of neat, and I was thinking about where to do these records. And I was like, you know, it would be kind of cool to have one where I actually started.”
During the show, the Ketchikan native hopes to set a new world record for most bum skips in 30 seconds.
That’s right, bum skips. Nestler explains:
“Basically, you’re seated with your feet out in front of you, and you’re jumping while you’re sitting down,” he said. “For this particular record … you hold both handles in one hand, so the rope’s basically cut in half. And then you spin the rope so it’s making kind of like a helicopter motion, but it’s going, it’s staying on the ground and you’re jumping over that with every jump.”
The current record is 82, according to the Guinness World Records press office.
He already holds the record for most rope skips on a unicycle in one minute: 237. Nestler hopes to set a total of 11 new world records this year, three of them in Juneau in the next six days.
And yes, this is his day job. He’s been professionally unicycling, jumping rope, and spreading a kid friendly motivational message around the world since 2002.
“A lot of people look at people like me that are professional or really good at something and they just think, ‘Oh, you know, he’s just born that way,’” Nestler said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, no.’ I’m definitely one of the people, I don’t pick stuff up quickly, but I work very, very hard, and the reason I’m good at stuff is I practice more than anybody else at something.”
Separately, he performs for churches and youth ministries with a faith-based message. He said his faith and relationship with God has helped him get where he is today.
He’ll perform next Wednesday at the Hub, an after school program at the Juneau Christian Center. There, he hopes to beat the record for the most rope skips while juggling a soccer ball in one minute. That’s 31.
He’ll also try to for the speed record for running a mile on one foot while jumping rope. The time to beat is 34 minutes, 1 second.
Constant conditioning and performing hundreds of shows a year inevitably leads to aches and pains. Add the grueling travel schedule, and he’s questioned his career.
“You definitely have those moments where you’re thinking, ‘Well, is this really the kind of job you want?’”
So far, the answer has been yes.
“But at the end, when you get out and you’re performing, you just kind of see the look on these kids’ faces,” he said. “They see me out there jumpin’, and you kind of see sometimes, those light bulbs kick off behind their heads. It’s like, you know, this really is what I like to do and I love the opportunity to do it,” he said.
Wrangell will soon be featured in National Geographic Traveler Magazine. KSTK’s Shady Grove Oliver caught up with the photographer working on the article yesterday and sent back this report.
Does Arkansas have a health care solution that would work in Alaska? The state’s Health and Social Services Commissioner, Bill Streur, is looking into that. Arkansas wants to use federal Medicaid expansion money under the Affordable Care Act to enroll people in private plans on its health insurance exchange.
It’s called the “private option” for Medicaid expansion. Instead of enrolling low-income, uninsured people in Medicaid, Arkansas would buy them insurance plans on the state’s health insurance exchange. Alaska Commissioner Bill Streur thinks it makes a lot of sense:
“It’s an intriguing model. If we can get more insurance through this, we ought to at least be in open dialogue with the federal government on this.”
Streur says he hasn’t spoken with Governor Parnell about the idea. But he says Arkansas’s plan addresses Parnell’s biggest problem with the expansion- that it leaves the state vulnerable to paying huge sums for the Medicaid program down the road. Parnell spoke with APRN about the issue in January:
“My concern is really that we not expand a program that the federal government can cut its funding to, but require us to continue and take over the federal share.”
Commissioner Streur says the Arkansas plan makes it easy for states to pull out of the expansion if that happens.
The Medicaid expansion starts in January, with the federal government paying for 100% of the program for the first three years. The federal government hasn’t approved the Arkansas model, but has worked with the state to draft the necessary waiver application. The Health and Human Services department has said it will consider approving a limited number of Arkansas style plans as demonstration projects. And Alaska isn’t the only state closely watching what happens in Arkansas, according to Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors:
“A lot of states are looking at this and saying if this really works in Arkansas, we’d like to try this.”
Salo says the Medicaid expansion would bring a lot of federal money into states. But he says the decision on whether to expand the program is a delicate one for many Republican Governors:
“A significant portion of them are amenable to expanding coverage if they can find a more politically or philosophically preferable approach, something that looks more like the private sector than it does a big government expansion.”
The Medicaid expansion would offer coverage to about 50,000 uninsured, low-income Alaskans. Susan Johnson is the regional director for the federal Department of Health and Human Services. She says the government is very open to negotiating with Alaska officials about what type of Medicaid expansion would work in the state:
“It’s not just, I want an Arkansas model, it’s what is best for the state itself… So Arkansas may come up with elements that Alaska would like, but there would be particular elements for Alaska that will be different from Arkansas. It’s just that we need to start that conversation.”
Commissioner Streur says he hopes to deliver a briefing to Governor Parnell about the Medicaid expansion decision in October.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
The Coast Guard icebreaker Healy is on its annual mission in the ice pack north of Barrow. Next month a group of technology specialists will come aboard with drones and submersibles to test arctic oil spill response capabilities.
The Inuit Circumpolar Council met in Kotzebue last week. It was the first meeting there since a general assembly in 1986. Members from Russia, Greenland and Canada joined their Alaskan counterparts to discuss ongoing concerns for indigenous people in the north. ICC formed in 1977. Jim Stotts is the ICC Alaska President. He says the regional groups have grown and are much more capable of addressing the concerns of the indigenous people they represent. ICC is also part of the eight nation Arctic Council. He says increasingly, they are being listened to on perennial issues such as climate change, subsistence and oil and gas development. Stotts says the federal government worked with them while developing the new national arctic policy.
“We feel like they are listening to us. At the Arctic Council level, where we have a right to participate in all levels of meetings including the ministerial meeting where you have folks such as Hillary Clinton or Secretary John Kerry at the meetings, very high level meetings. So I feel that we are being listened to and that we’re having an impact.”
Stotts says the rush to develop oil and gas resources in the arctic coupled with the prospect of increased vessel traffic means indigenous people need to be at the table for discussions about how to proceed as well as how to garner economic development for arctic communities. He says ICC contributed to an Arctic Council document called the Polar Code that was given to the International Maritime Organization.
“To address the special, unique nature of the arctic ocean, particularly ice and ship building codes and how to handle waste fuel and so forth. So, the arctic council is together with us and the observers which would include countries like China and the UK to come up with a plan and a way to do things safely that will benefit no only those countries but also the people that live in the north. So it’s important that this work is done before the mad rush for development.”
There is growing pressure from non arctic nations such as China to have a seat on the arctic council. ICC Greenland President Aqqaluk Lynge says there are important rules for how participants can operate within the arctic council, but he says there has to be acceptance of the interest from outside nations.
“Here the observers have a seat and if they also understand the situation of indigenous peoples of the arctic, then it’s good for us and it would help us to have more friends outside that would support indigenous peoples right to land, resources and our future culture.”
Lynge says the rapid growth of mining in Greenland is raising concerns over the community impacts from a large influx of outside workers. Concerns that both men say, will become a growing reality in Alaska and the other member countries as arctic resource development ramps up.
Over the past ten years, state education funding has more than doubled while student enrollment has stayed about the same. Still, educational outcomes haven’t seen dramatic improvement. This week, lawmakers got together to ask why that is. The information they received in these meetings could shape a fight over education funding that’s expected to play out this next legislative session.
Communities that were hit by last fall’s floods do not need to start heading for high ground, yet. Rivers are rising in the Mat-Su and Anchorage, but major flooding is not expected right now.
The Matanuska Susitna Borough is working on a plan to dry-dock the ferry Susitna in Cook Inlet. But the move would cost the borough more than one million dollars.
The Alaska Marine Highway System Manager says the first of two day boats will be sailing Lynn Canal even before the summer of 2016.
Captain John Falvey and other state transportation officials are holding meetings on the new ferry design this week. The first was in Juneau last night.
“The purpose of this was to have a lunch box boat.”
Will Nickum is an engineer for Elliott Bay Design Group in Seattle, architects for the day boats and other Alaska Marine Highway ships.
But the paradigm of state ferries is changing; instead of operating 24-hours a day, the proposed 280-foot shuttles would be tied up at the end of 12-hours, like the fast ferries Fairweather and Chenega.
“At the end of the day, the crew would go home and then come back the next morning and start all over again.”
The current design of the ferries show a closed car deck – but state officials originally said it would be open. That drew a lot of criticism from passengers who are familiar with Lynn Canal’s rough seas and spray. Boat architects Elliott Bay have advised against it. Nickum says it would cost slightly more.
“But the weather protection and the potential for lower maintenance, the recommendation was pretty strong back to the state and state’s accepted that recommendation and the design you see now has a closed car deck.”
The day boats would first serve Juneau, Skagway and Haines, carry 53 standard-size vehicles and 300 passengers, and travel at about 15 and a half knots.
There wouldn’t be much time in port.
“Rapid unload and load of the passengers and vehicles is important to meet this day boat concept,” Nickum said. “For rapid turnaround, need to drive through loading and unloading; not too much monkey motion around through side doors and what not. Really want to come on the bow, go off the stern or come on the stern and go off the bow.”
Juneau resident Bob Millard wonders how realistic that turnaround is. He rides the Alaska Marine Highway often, and also Washington State ferries, which are day boats.
“You know I’m concerned about crew fatigue and the time it takes to load in ports, like Haines, (where) you have a lot of tourists. The turnaround time I s probably a factor given all the traffic and inexperience of people loading and unloading.”
Millard says the potential delays would make that 12-hour day a very tight schedule.
The preliminary design study for the shuttle ferries came out last month and a public comment period is underway. This week’s meetings in Juneau, Skagway and Haines are strictly informational.
Marine Highway manager Falvey believes both ships will be operational by the middle of 2016. The funding comes from a previous Alaska Class Ferry project.
“We have approximately $118 million to work with and we feel very confident we can deliver both of these boats all said and done for that price.”
Falvey says the design team is now working detailed scenarios:
“What would the system look like when the first Alaska Class Ferry comes on. What would it look like when the second one comes on and there will still be mainliners running up through the canal.”
The public comment period on the preliminary design ends August 30. Comments should be made online through the Department of Transportation website.
Glacier Bay Lodge will stay open, at least for another 2 years.
Several weeks of negotiations between National Park Service and the current concessionaires ended yesterday. This resulted in a 2-year extension of the contract held by Aramark and Huna Totem Corporation.
“That will keep the Glacier Bay Lodge open, keep the day tour boat running, as well as other services that they provide in the park, such as the restaurant and the gift shop,” explains John Quinley, spokesman for the National Park Service in Anchorage.
He says the extension begins in January 2014. Before it runs out, NPS plans to put out a new prospectus.
Based on conversations with Aramark and other companies about why they didn’t bid, Quinley says reasons include costs of operation and maintenance.
“We’re going to be relooking at those numbers and seeing if there are maintenance tasks that perhaps were overstated, if there were things that would better belong on the park service’s side of the ledger, ways to get that work done less expensively perhaps. So we have a lot of work to do to rebuild a prospectus that will get some bidders,” he says.
Glacier Bay Lodge contains 56 rooms, which accounts for about half the lodging available in all of nearby Gustavus, a town of 450 residents.
JoAnn Lesh is president of the Gustavus Visitors Association and owns Gustavus Inn with her husband Dave. She and the association have been working on keeping the lodge open since the end of March.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done,” she says. “I’m very excited that we will get a chance to have two years of stability for our economy here in Gustavus.”
Lesh says the association is holding a luncheon tomorrow at Glacier Bay Lodge to celebrate.
The state of Alaska wants oil prices high.
“Every dollar change in price is close to 100 -150 million dollars in state revenue,” said acting Revenue Commissioner Angela Rodell. “Short term volatility like you’ve been seeing in the past few weeks, given things going on around the world, create a lot of distractions.”
The recent coup in Egypt gets all the headlines is not the reason for the jump, said Frank Verrastro. Verrastro, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said fears over control of the Suez Canal are legitimate.
Other conflicts, he said, are having more tangible effects.
“The Iraq Ceyhan Pipeline has been down, and that’s reduced exports out of Iraq. There’s been problems down in Basra,” he said by phone Monday from Washington. ”Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, and the fact that Libyan production is down 600,000 – 700,000 barrels a day.”
All this means that Alaska has little control over a global commodity. High oil prices translate to higher fuel costs, especially in hard to reach rural Alaska.
Throughout western Alaska, villagers are ordering and stockpiling hundreds of gallons of heating oil for the winter.
Bob Cox, vice president with Crowley Maritime Corporation – the company that barges refined oil products to western Alaska, said there are about three weeks left for the final barge of the season to make the journey.
The company stores the fuel in tanks throughout the state. Both Crowley and other companies sell the fuel to villagers.
Cox said the company monitors global oil prices to get the best price, and this year, it tried something new: Buying 300 thousand barrels of heating oil from China.
“That arrived off the west coast of Alaska in July. We offloaded that and brought that into our tank farms because that was a better value at that time, then U.S. prices,” he said.
The company still needs to finalize its price for the final barge.
Crowley uses the price per barrel the day the barge is loaded in its calculation for final prices. Cox says about one-third of Crowley’s cost is overhead, distribution, profit and transportation – the rest is the product.
“So we’re somewhat hostage to whatever is going on in the oil markets at the time we’re loading the barges,” Cox said.
Oil prices have been higher before: They hit $120 a barrel when the Arab Spring erupted.
This spring, state legislators considered a controversial bill that would define what counts as a “medically necessary” abortion for the purpose of Medicaid reimbursement. Now, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is considering regulations tackling the same issue. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that proposed rule would require doctors to get specific on why they think the state state should cover the procedure.
Abortion policy in Alaska is a war of inches. Because of a privacy clause in the state constitution, most of the fights don’t involve prohibitions of the procedure. They play out at the margins. And the question of whether the state should cover abortions for low-income women for medical reasons is one of the most contentious fights.
The latest battle comes in the form of physician paperwork. The Department of Health and Social Services wants doctors to fill out a sheet checking off why an abortion should be reimbursed. Commissioner Bill Streur says the point is to make doctors reflect on whether an abortion is medically necessary or elective. He wants the state reduce the number of payments for abortions he thinks are in the second category.
“We hope so. We don’t know, because I thought the last one would have helped, but it didn’t help. In fact, our numbers seem to be up this year from previous years.”
When Streur says the “last one,” he’s referring to a form that doctors have been filling out for a year now. That form puts abortions in two categories: ones the federal government pays for because the pregnancy could kill the woman or because it’s the result of rape or incest, and ones that the state pays for because they could have a dangerous effect on a woman’s physical or mental health.
The new form gets even more detailed. It would make doctors check off a specific medical condition — like epilepsy or heart disease — as a reason for getting a reimbursement. While opponents of the new regulations have privacy concerns, Streur says he doesn’t see an issue with patient confidentiality.
“For instance, if a recipient has diabetes or if a recipient has a heart condition, if they have other issues — a cancer– if they’re on special medications that preclude or make it dangerous to continue with a pregnancy, we already have that information because we’ve been paying for their care.”
Planned Parenthood has already come out against the regulations, saying that if the goal is to limit state payment for abortion the Department is putting a de facto restriction on access for low income women. They also say the proposed rule could violate the equal protection clause by placing different requirements on women who get abortions instead of taking their pregnancies to term.
Other providers describe the regulations as a form of bullying, meant to discourage doctors from getting Medicaid reimbursement by making them feel like the state is scrutinizing them more intently. One physician, who didn’t want his name used, says he personally thinks the regulations are intimidating.
“This actually happened to me about 15 years ago. But if someone from the enforcement branch basically said, ‘I don’t think you’re exercising due clinical oversight, and you’re essentially billing the state for things they shouldn’t be paying for, and you’re breaking the law.’ So from that practical point, that’s chilling to me.”
This provider added that he sees the regulations as intruding on the doctor-patient relationship.
For his part, Commissioner Streur says he doesn’t think the new form would be much more burdensome than the previous one, and that it would give the state a better dataset to work with when trying to curb the number of abortion payments.
But Streur says the proposed regulations have stirred up some controversy. Since the rules were first introduced on Friday, he’s gotten a mixed response. The e-mails have broken down along political lines, with opponents of abortion being especially supportive.
“[They've been] very nice, very complimentary because of the direction that we’re going in terms of right to life … and not very nice from those I’m denying care,” says Streur. “I’m not denying care. I’m denying reimbursement for the services performed that are not medically necessary. That’s the only thing we’re doing. We are not denying care. We can’t deny care.”
The Department is taking public comment on the proposed regulations until September 27.