Troubled Alaska Psychiatric Institute receives accreditation

The problem-plagued Alaska Psychiatric Institute has won accreditation for psychiatric care from an independent review body, after the state turned the facility’s management over to a private company to bring it into compliance with regulators.

The hospital was in “imminent danger” of losing that accreditation from The Joint Commission, said Adam Crum, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, in an agency announcement on Friday.

The problems prompted the state in February to hire Wellpath Recovery Solutions on an emergency basis — without competitive bidding and public review — to take over the hospital administration and turn it around.

“This provides further evidence that the actions we’ve taken over the last few months are making positive improvements for our patients and staff,” Crum said.

At least one lawmaker suggested that Wellpath did not deserve credit, saying the company arrived too late to make a difference. Wellpath was hired by the state the first week of February, after the commission’s last on-site visit to the hospital on Jan. 29, said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage and House Health and Social Services Committee co-chair.

The three-year accreditation began Dec. 15 of last year. API received notification of it on April 3.

“It sounds like it really disingenuous that the department is suggesting that Wellpath had anything to do with it, and that Wellpath would be taking any credit for it," Spohnholz said.


[State will turn over administration of troubled Alaska Psychiatric Institute to a for-profit company]

Sarah Erkmann Ward, an Alaska spokeswoman for Wellpath, said Friday the company has brought new psychiatrists on board. She was unable to reach officials with Wellpath, based in Nashville, Tennessee, to provide further examples of steps the company had taken to help win accreditation.

“But I can say with confidence that Wellpath would challenge that assertion,” by Sponholz, she said.

The approval is “a step in the right direction," Crum said. But he stressed the agency remains focused on improving patient and staff safety. It’s also working on keeping "federal certification and full licensure from the state.”

The nonprofit commission accredits and certifies more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs nationally.

Wellpath provides health care in correctional centers, state psychiatric hospitals and other facilities in the U.S. and in Australia.

Over the last year, API has been the target of multiple investigations by federal regulators that found serious and widespread problems ranging from slow responses to sexual assaults to excessive use of restraints and seclusion rooms for patients. A separate investigation also found that it to be a dangerous workplace for nurses, with high rates of worker injuries.

The Alaska Office of the Ombudsman, an independent state office charged with investigating complaints against state government, issued a report in March on dysfunction and abuse at the facility.

Since December, psychiatrists have resigned or announced plans to do so, putting the facility at risk of losing its full complement of such professionals. Also, two were fired by the administration of Gov. Michael Dunleavy after they refused to submit required letters of resignation. Staffing woes contributed to falling patient loads.

[The last three psychiatrists working at API are resigning]

Wellpath and the agency have hired four new psychiatrists at API, Wellpath said in an announcement Friday.

The new names include Mark McClung and Anthony Blanford, said Ward.

Blanford is one of the two psychiatrists who had been fired by the Dunleavy administration.

Ward did not not name the other two hires. The hiring of a fifth psychiatrist will be announced soon, she said.

Winning accreditation involved a “rigorous on-site survey" in December to review compliance with the Joint Commission’s standards, the state agency said.

In December, the commission called for improvements in areas involving medical staff and physical environment. API and Wellpath addressed the problems, and the commission verified the improvements with more on-site visits and reviews of documentation, the agency said.

Jeremy Barr, division director at Wellpath, said winning the accreditation is “no easy feat."


“This is the first of many steps required to get API back to full capacity, and we look forward to continuing to improve the quality of care available at API,” Barr said, in the statement from Wellpath.

The Joint Commission is recommending API for continued Medicare certification with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, the agency said.


Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or