Group proposes cure for state's ills

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Alaskans need better access to health care, according to a group advocating an Alaska Health Plan.

Last week, members traveled to Juneau to pitch the idea to the Legislature and ask for formation of an Alaska Health Commission to develop the plan.

"I just cannot imagine a centralized, coordinated health care system not being immensely more efficient than what we are doing presently," said Jerry Near, chairman of the board of directors of the Soldotna-based Community Care Foundation.

Near, who works in insurance, and Gary Schwartz, executive director of the Alaska Healthcare Network Inc. in Fairbanks, spent two days in the Capitol. They testified to the House and Senate committees overseeing health, education and social services, presenting the foundation's ideas for establishing a commission and, eventually, a foundation to administer a revised health insurance system.

"The ultimate goal is to establish a self-funded state health care delivery entity to administer a basic benefit plan available to all Alaskans," according to the proposal they delivered.

Near said the immediate goal is to generate a resolution during the current legislative session to set up an Alaska Health Commission.

Rep. Gary Davis, R-Soldotna, has been working with the group and read the testimony to the House HESS committee.

"It could benefit everybody," he said. "But then comes the economic picture -- even for a commission."

The pressing state budget cuts are influencing everything the Legislature is discussing this session. Even a relatively small item such as funding the expenses and staff for a commission is a hard sell. But there may be ways other than state operating funds to move forward with the proposal, he said.

Davis said the resolution to establish the commission probably will be introduced this session. Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, has agreed to draft the resolution, Davis said.

The commission would meet for two years to develop an Alaska Health Plan, which -- if approved by the Legislature -- would be put into effect and administered by an Alaska Health Foundation.

The foundation would be an independent nonprofit group, funded by public and private sources, including patient premiums. It would be a cooperative run and owned by Alaskans, somewhat like the Alaska Housing Finance Corpora-tion or the Alaska Railroad, said Mike McLane, secretary of the Anchorage Access to Health Care Coalition.

Near, McLane and others involved in the project drafted a preliminary Alaska Health Plan and distributed it last spring.

As the complexities of the project became evident, they turned to the state for help in setting up a professional commission to work on the details, Davis said.

The draft plan calls for reducing costs and serving more people by emphasizing wellness and prevention, educating people about their health, fostering community involvement, collecting health status data, using new technology such as telemedicine and Internet to boost efficiency and reduce costs to customers.

The impetus for the proposal comes from soaring health insurance costs, the growing numbers of Alaskans who cannot afford health services and the drain on the economy from health care dollars leaving the state.

Alaska has more than 100,000 uninsured residents; 40 percent of Alaska's health expenditures go out of state; and health care insurance premiums for state workers went up 11 percent just over the past year, according to numbers the Community Care Foundation cited in its draft resolution sent to state officials.

Dr. Catherine Schumacher, chair of the Anchorage Access to Health Care Coalition and the Anchorage Health and Human Services Commission, emphasized the current system's shortcomings in a letter she wrote Feb. 3 in support of the proposal.

"Even though Anchorage does not lack for medical providers, many people find access difficult for a variety of reasons, including the high cost of medical care, lack of health insurance, lack of transportation, lack of after-hours clinics and lack of providers accepting their insurance," she wrote.

Davis said the ambitious plan would pull together and streamline statewide a lot of health care reforms others have attempted on a piecemeal basis.

"It is regionalizing health care," he said. "It is a unique public-private proposal. I'm not familiar with any (other health systems) that have the structure this is proposing."

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