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Alaska health centers receive $5.3 million from feds to expand primary care

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 15, 2014

A little more than $5.3 million in recently awarded federal funds will pay for new services, more providers and expanded hours at 27 health centers in Alaska, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The grants went to facilities in communities from Kotzebue to Fort Yukon to Unalaska and Wrangell. Nationwide, the federal health department will give 1,195 health centers $295 million in Affordable Care Act funding to expand primary care services in fiscal year 2014, the statement said.

At the Dahl Memorial Clinic in Skagway, the $192,834 award will boost services in the summer, when the tourism industry booms and appointments are hard to come by for locals, said Shelly O'Boyle, the clinic's executive director.

"We have one to five cruise ships coming in a day," she said. The clinic is the city's only health care facility. To get to the nearest hospital, a patient must take a one-hour flight or eight-hour ferry ride to Juneau.

Next summer, the clinic will add two seasonal health care providers along with 11 hours to its weekly operating schedule. It will also pay for its visiting dentist to provide specific services for the community's children, O'Boyle said.

Across Alaska, the grants will fund 41 new staff members whose services will benefit an estimated 7,774 new Alaska patients, according to the statement.

The Maniilaq Association will use its $212,542 to fund a village-based physician in Ambler, a small community on the north bank of the Kobuk River, said Paul Hansen, health services administrator at the tribally operated nonprofit.

Currently, health centers in the 11 villages under the Maniilaq Association are staffed by community health-aide practitioners. People must travel to Kotzebue for chronic and specialty care, he said.

"The folks with chronic care, they have ongoing care needs. They need to see their providers and have their conditions monitored and their treatment plans monitored," Hansen said. "It's challenging when you don't have physicians in the villages to supply the follow-up care."

A physician has been hired from the Fairbanks area and will move to Ambler and cover that community along with three surrounding villages, he said.

Hansen said the Maniilaq Association will have to reapply for the federal grant each year.

According to the statement, the grant money is supposed to enable health centers to provide care for more people, including those newly insured under the Affordable Care Act. In Alaska, roughly 16,000 people signed up for individual insurance plans on the state's federally run health insurance marketplace during the first open enrollment period.

In Southwest Alaska, 58 communities served by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. will receive a visit from a traveling optometrist because of the $219,964 federal grant, the largest sum awarded in the state, said Susan Hoeldt, subregional clinic administrator with the health corporation.

"We will be focusing on school screenings for kids first," Hoeldt said. "We are advertising for an additional optometrist so we can make sure that we meet the need that we have."

Hoeldt said that while the health corporation recruits a new employee, it has already sent a Bethel-based optometrist to Mountain Village with a handful of prescription eyeglasses to begin exams.

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