Murkowski protests agency's policy on Alaska, Hawaii

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski is objecting to a new travel policy for Health and Human Services workers that classifies Alaska and Hawaii as international destinations. To travel there, the policy says, workers must notify higher-ups 30 days in advance.

Murkowski says the extra administrative hurdle for trips to Alaska amounts to discrimination.

''It's inconceivable to me why travel to the state of Alaska, which has many valid health concerns that involve HHS, should be treated any differently than travel to any of the other ... states,'' the Republican senator wrote in a letter to HHS secretary Tommy Thompson, urging him to reverse the policy.

In a March 15 memo, Thompson's deputy chief of staff for operations said employees must clear ''certain kinds of international travel'' with his office. Later in the memo he specifies that the policy applies to travel outside the contiguous states.

Campbell Gardett, a spokesman for the department, says the policy is aimed at cutting travel abuses.

''The real animus was expensive trips to overseas conferences,'' Gardett said. Employees may use official travel as an excuse for recreational pursuits, he said.

Alaska was included ''because it's a desirable location in the summer,'' Gardett said.

That's not reason enough to single out Alaska and Hawaii for an extra ''hassle factor,'' Murkowski's office said.

''Why not Florida in the winter? Why not Utah and Vail in the winter, if you're interested in skiing?'' asked Murkowski's legislative director, Alexander Polinsky. ''It seems very selective.''

The Department of Health and Human Services supervises hundreds of programs. It oversees health insurance programs for the poor and elderly, financial aid to poor families, child support enforcement, the Indian Health Service, and substance abuse treatment, among others.

HHS officials sometimes need to visit Alaska to understand, for example, that it costs more to deliver services there, said Murkowski's aide. Murkowski would never support travel abuse, but all 50 states should be treated the same, Polinsky said.

Gardett said the department would make exceptions to the 30-day notification rule in certain cases.

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