A bill introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy meant to aid Alaska’s ailing hospitals died in the Alaska House of Representatives Monday after becoming the center of a debate over vaccine mandates.
The House voted Sunday night to include amendments on Senate Bill 3006 that would require hospitals and nursing homes to allow support people to be with patients while they receive care.
But hospital representatives say allowing more people into the hospital during a pandemic would be detrimental to the health and safety of patients, particularly when the bill also includes amendments prohibiting requirements for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Seeing all the anti-mitigation and vaccine measures, and dictating terms of what normally is in the hands of medical professions, dictating terms on how to run a safe facility,” said Jared Kosin, CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, in a phone interview. “It’s such a distraction.”
Kosin told the Empire the bill as it stands would be more detrimental to Alaska’s health care than helpful.
Without the hiring flexibility the bill was originally meant to provide, Alaska’s hospitals would still do their best to provide care, Kosin said.
“We don’t have time and energy to waste on things like this,” Kosin said. “I was on calls today with facilities that are running out of oxygen. We’re getting ready to have conversations about how are we going to ration care, that’s what we’re dealing with in our world. We don’t have time for, to be frank, political theater.”
But members of the House minority stood by their amendments, saying in a meeting with reporters they had heard overwhelming concern from constituents over vaccine mandates. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, said she was concerned to hear Kosin’s statements.
“We’re talking about the right to have someone present when they’re dying,” Vance said. “We have to maintain human dignity or what is the point of safeguarding someone else’s life?”
According to South Peninsula Hospital’s website, while under current restrictions, visitors are not permitted to the hospital, one designated visitor per patient per stay is permitted for pediatric patients, obstetrics patients, surgery patients, and end of life care. Visitors by appointment are allowed for Long Term Care residents.
“South Peninsula Hospital tries our best to honor family and patient needs while maintaining safe protocols in regards to COVID mitigation efforts,” SPH spokesperson Derotha Ferraro said. “The CDC guidelines are very clear for hospital visitation during high community spread of COVID, and our position is to follow the guidelines while creating as much opportunity for patients and residents to be with their loved ones.”
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said such decisions about who is present in someone’s final moments shouldn’t be left to industry professionals or bureaucrats. Carpenter said there should be civilian oversight of health care as there is for the military.
“Industry has a role, they have a job to do,” Carpenter said. “But industry has to recognize that it isn’t just about science, it has to do with policy. We’re talking about death, and there is a role for policymakers to play.”
Bartlett Regional Hospital CEO Rose Lawhorne told the Empire Monday the bill as amended would have made it more difficult to create a safe environment at the hospital.
“There’s a high degree of balance between rights of patients and being able to provide care in a safe manner,” Lawhorne said. “In trying to protect specific rights (lawmakers) throw up road blocks to providing care in our communities.”
Lawhorne said the hospital board had instructed her to develop a vaccine mandate, and that lawyers and others are researching the best way to do that including exemptions.
Members of the House majority spent Monday morning in caucus and other meetings, trying to discuss how to move forward with the bill. The coalition has only a slight majority and two of its members, Reps. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, voted in favor of the visitation provisions.
In a statement Monday, the majority said the bill would not be brought back to the floor for another vote following the addition of the amendments.
Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire. Homer News reporter and editor Michael Armstrong contributed to this story. Reach him at email@example.com.