Lawmakers at the Alaska State Capitol, seen here in this Jun. 7, file photo, heard a bill that would make it easier for hospitals to hire workers from other states on Tuesday, with only a week left in the Legislature's third special session of the year. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

Lawmakers fast-track bill to aid health care hiring

Facing COVID surge, Alaska’s hospitals need workers fast

A bill to bring relief to Alaska’s beleaguered hospitals is being pushed through the Alaska State Legislature, which is currently in the last week of its third special session.

Some lawmakers have called on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to declare a state of emergency over Alaska’s health care infrastructure as the state tries to combat surging COVID-19 case numbers and strained hospital capacity. But Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told a Senate committee Tuesday an emergency declaration would not give the governor the specific powers health care providers said they needed.

“The disaster declaration does not give us the tools we need,” Crum told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. “It provides the governor with broad authority but does not allow the governor to amend or change laws.”

Crum said the extended COVID-19 pandemic had created a different public health crisis by straining the state’s health infrastructure, and health care providers needed to hire workers quickly. The administration reached out to health care providers before drafting Senate Bill 3006, Crum said, and staffing was the largest concern. The governor’s proposed bill would reduce barriers to training and hiring, Crum said, and allow health care providers to bring staff from the Lower 48 more quickly.

But one of the provisions in SB3006 would suspend the requirement that hospitals and nursing homes conduct background checks with DHSS before hiring, which drew questioning from committee chair Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, who voiced concern at the idea. Crum said providers and health care workers themselves must still provide backgrounds checks, just not from DHSS, allowing workers in other states to begin working in Alaska more quickly.

DHSS Director of Health Care Services Renee Gayheart told the committee third party background checks do provide for a number of civil registries, but not necessarily the same ones checked by DHSS.

Costello noted the bill would only be heard before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, and was being expedited so that it could be put to a vote faster.

Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association President and CEO Jared Kosin gave public testimony in support of the bill, and urged its swift passage. Kosin said health care workers were under strain and feeling exhausted.

Kosin and other health care officials have said the majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, but there are vaccinated people still being hospitalized. ASHNHA released a graphic on social media Tuesday showing the number of hospitalizations in Anchorage and the amount of vaccinated and unvaccinated patients.

According to ASHNHA, there are 17 unvaccinated patients and 1 vaccinated patient on ventilators; 28 unvaccinated patients and five vaccinated patients are in the ICU and 110 unvaccinated patients and 28 vaccinated patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 between Aug. 22-28.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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