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API firings worsen Alaska’s mental health crisis

  • Author: Kristi Meyer Brooks
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 6, 2018
  • Published December 6, 2018

Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Oct. 13, 2018 (ADN photo)

More than two weeks ago, Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy issued a memo requesting that exempt and partially exempt state employees resign and reapply for their jobs. Though it is common for high-level political appointees to receive such a request, it is almost unheard of for nonpartisan, low-level employees to be asked to resign. This has been described as “a demand for a loyalty oath pledging allegiance — not to Alaska, but to the new governor.” Indeed, a spokesperson of Dunleavy’s administration described the move as “sending out the message,” asking that at-will employees “affirmatively say, ‘Yes, I want to work for the Dunleavy administration.’ ”

Around 10 a.m. Monday, the physicians at Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) who, acting on principle, refused to resign, were fired. They were given two hours to clean out their desks. Dr. Anthony Blanford, M.D., who was among them, wrote an editorial explaining why he did not resign: “The state of Alaska hired me for my expertise, not my political allegiance.” State attorneys have voiced similar concerns.

As people who work in mental health, our allegiance is to our patients; as citizens of Alaska, it is to the state. The notion that non-appointed employees should pledge their loyalty to a government official is profoundly unpatriotic, and repugnant to the governor’s stated mission of public service. Gov. Dunleavy’s first act was not just unethical, it was an act of bullying.

Here at API, we are the last resort for the state’s mentally ill, delivering the highest level of psychiatric care available in Alaska. This past year, we have faced challenges with staffing and funding, so much so that we had to close two of our five units. Our ability to function depends on having experienced psychiatrists leading patient care. Recruiting such physicians is challenging, because the salaries are below market rates. To have compassionate, intelligent, qualified physicians fired for political reasons is hugely disruptive and demoralizing, especially in the wake of the Friday earthquake. Dunleavy is continuing to test our institution’s limits, thereby putting Alaska’s mental health system further in crisis. Our hospital has capacity for 80 patients, but — as of today — only three MD level providers are present at API for the foreseeable future. Even if the hospital reaches its previous staffing goals for our nurses and nursing assistants/floor staff, we now will have a shortage in psychiatric providers.

We strongly implore Gov. Dunleavy to re-evaluate his actions. As citizens and employees of the state who serve some of the most vulnerable people in Alaska, we believe that the values of freedom and independence are worth fighting for. That is why we stand by the providers that make our work possible.

Kristi Meyer Brooks served as a Protective Service Specialist II in the Social Work Department at Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

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