Plan to split Alaska Department of Health draws criticism

·2 min read

JUNEAU, Alaska — A proposal to split the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services into two organizations has been criticized by health care workers, social service organizations and tribal governments.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the reorganization plan Dec. 22, saying the department had become too large and its administration too burdensome to operate as a single entity, The Juneau Empire reported Thursday.

Dunleavy issued an executive order to establish the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services.

The order will be submitted in the legislative session that starts Jan. 19. The order must be approved by a majority vote in a joint session of the Legislature to go into effect.

Richard Chalyee Eesh Peterson, president of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, expressed concern the reorganization would complicate providing services for child welfare programs, particularly because the majority of children under state care are Alaska Native.

During testimony Wednesday to the state House Health and Social Services Committee, Peterson said Tlingit and Haida traditionally partnered with the state in social services administration.

“It is hard to discuss the bifurcation of DHSS without talking about negative impacts,” Peterson said.

The state and certain tribal governments reached a 2017 agreement to work together toward better child welfare programs, but Peterson said there was no outreach from the state to Tlingit and Haida, which represents about 32,000 tribal citizens.

Health department spokesperson Clinton Bennett said in an email Wednesday that the reorganization plan fulfills the conditions of the 2017 agreement.

“There is no substantive change or impact to the compact with the departmental split," Bennett said. "Other than changing the name of DHSS to the correct corresponding new Department names, all rights and responsibilities as outlined in the Compact remain unchanged.”

The department consulted stakeholder groups and will continue to do so, Bennett said.

Tanana Chiefs Conference Chairman P.J. Simon said the organization was willing to work with the administration on an alternative to reduce bureaucracy, but the current proposal would negatively affect social services.

The proposed split would produce “worse outcomes than the status quo," Simon said.

Lynn Biggs of Casey Family Foundation, who also testified Wednesday, said several states tried reorganizing departments as a way of producing better social service outcomes.

But research showed every model of providing social services comes with pros and cons, and better outcomes are more often produced by greater levels of collaboration, Biggs said.

The Associated Press