Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gov. Palin announces healthy priorities

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

Gov. Sarah Palin’s plan to begin steps toward solving Alaska’s health insurance crisis was welcome news this week on the Kenai Peninsula.

According to a 2004 household survey, 20.4 percent of the peninsula’s residents were uninsured, compared to statewide figures of 19.1 percent for that year. Fairbanks fared better with 15.2 percent uninsured. Nationally, the number was 14.1.

For 2007, Central Peninsula Health Centers’ Executive Director Stan Steadman said 82 percent of his patients qualified for services at a benchmark of 200 percent of the poverty level. Thirty-one percent had no insurance, including not qualifying for Medicaid. The health center had 22,348 total “encounters” of patients seen that year.

New attention by the governor’s office to address health insurance is certainly welcome news, Steadman said. The public health clinic has already added staff, in anticipation of needing to treat higher numbers of patients due to Medicaid patients turned away by doctors, he said.

“Community health centers are positioned to address critical areas of concern. The U.S. Congress recently reauthorized a community health center program for the next five years, unanimously,” he said.

Insured patients who have a high deductible likewise may feel insecure and add to the client base the clinic sees, Steadman said.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, noticed that an important obstacle facing better health for Alaskans was left out of the governor’s plan.

“I don’t see anything addressing the reduction of alcohol use and abuse, or cessation programs,” Seaton said. “Probably the No. 1 health problem facing Alaskans is alcohol and we don’t have adequate cessation programs.”

The governor plans to reveal more details of her health care hopes in her budget address Dec. 15, when she delivers her fiscal year 2010 operating and capital budgets.

As for health insurance for the general population, Seaton said it’s unlikely that will be seen anytime soon. First, the commission needs to do its work, including new studies.

Alaskans lacking health insurance and the many factors that cause it have been documented in several studies over the past decade. These were already funded through federal and state money. Those studies may have “come up with ideas, but if they didn’t have traction, then the idea didn’t go anywhere and the data likely grew old,” Seaton said.

“We’ll haves to start again, with some concepts that can carry over,“ Seaton said. “We have new models from other states. Massachusetts has had its mandatory insurance for two years. That’s enough time to see if it’s working or not. Hawaii has a health care model.”

Big changes likely won’t happen in the next two or three years, Seaton said, but the state may see elements of the plan in the works by a year from now.

For immediate needs, the governor did well to advocate for increasing eligibility guidelines for children, Seaton said. A movement in the Legislature last year sought to increase Denali KidCare to 200 percent of the poverty level, but faced too much opposition to pass.

One fear was that by raising the eligibility guidelines in a program receiving limited funds, the program would be depleted and then forced to turn away children who needed the medical help, Seaton said.

“A lot of kids in those guidelines got lost,” he said.

Governor’s wish list for a healthier future for Alaska

Gov. Sarah Palin on Thursday announced her goals to improve Alaska’s health and education through fiscal year 2010 budget requests. She proposes to:
  • Establish the Alaska Health Care Commission to provide recommendations for and to foster the development of a statewide plan to address the quality, accessibility and availability of health care for all.
  • Support legislation to increase income eligibility guidelines for Denali KidCare to 200 percent of Alaska’s federal poverty level. Such an increase would make about 1,300 more children and about 225 more pregnant women eligible for health coverage under Denali KidCare.
  • Continue investment in the Tobacco Use Education and Cessation Fund to boost Alaska’s tobacco prevention and control program.
  • Fund Alaska’s obesity prevention and control program.
  • Spend $250,000 on early screening and diagnosis of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Develop a statewide initiative called Live Well Alaska. The interactive Web-based campaign would provide the best recommendations for eating healthier, being more physically active and quitting tobacco use.
  • Increase funding for Head Start preschool programs by $800,000. The additional funds would allow the program to serve 60 to 80 more children. Approximately 1,000 Alaska children remain on waiting lists for Head Start. This funding is in addition to $600,000 in increased funding that Head Start received last fiscal year.
  • v Spend $2 million for the Department of Education to implement a pilot preschool program. School districts would receive the funding through grants. The half-day preschools would serve up to 500 children statewide.
  • v Fund the University of Alaska’s Family Residency Program.

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