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Proposition 13 will bring needed relief to Anchorage’s emergency response system

  • Author: Jodie Hettrick
    | Opinion
    , Natasha Pineda
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 13, 2020
  • Published March 15, 2020

Anchorage Firefighters assist a woman near 13 Avenue and Hyder Street. The intoxicated woman complained of heart rhythm irregularities and was transported to a hospital. Medic Matt Eckart said the demands on the fire department by intoxicated people can wear down firefighters. “We take them to the hospital, they release them, they go to Anchorage Safety Patrol and they just sober up to get out and go do this - drinking - again. It’s just a big cycle," he said. Photographed on Friday, October 17, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN

Anchorage Fire Department firefighter/paramedics and firefighter/EMTs are on the scene when Anchorage residents need help the most. We respond to more than 36,000 calls each year, which averages out to more than 100 calls per day. Three in five of those calls are medical emergencies. As we serve an increasing number of patients experiencing behavioral health crises, often co-occurring with alcohol use disorder, one thing has become increasingly clear: The patients we serve cannot get the help they need because that help is not available in our community. There are simply not enough treatment resources in Anchorage. Funneling patients with alcohol and substance use disorders and behavioral health conditions to emergency rooms not only fails to address the underlying problem, it also strains medical providers. We know we can do better. We should not be seeing the same patients over and over again.

Last year, the Anchorage Health Department completed a community assessment to better understand the causes and extent of Anchorage’s substance misuse problem. We compiled the available data and spent four months interviewing residents across Anchorage who have been directly or indirectly affected by substance misuse, including people in recovery, family members, government officials, service providers, law enforcement, businesses operators, and academics. Our assessment confirmed what every recent needs assessment has shown: The lack of behavioral health and psychiatric health services is exacerbating a substance misuse crisis in Anchorage. Our assessment also affirmed an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that childhood trauma is a major driver of negative outcomes later in life, including substance misuse, mental illness, intimate partner violence, lower income and health complications.

We have no doubt that Proposition 13 will save lives and make our entire community safer. Revenue from the alcohol tax would not only fund additional first responders, it would increase the behavioral health and substance misuse treatment resources that are sorely needed in the community. And for the first time, there would be sustained municipal funding dedicated to preventing these crises from happening in the first place by supporting programs that reduce child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

Proposition 13 won’t just fund solutions, it will reduce the problem. Alcohol is the substance of highest misuse in Anchorage, and alcohol use disorder is the most common form of addiction among adult Alaskans. Alcohol contributes to more deaths, more ambulance transports, more hospitalizations, more Office of Children’s Services (OCS) intakes than any other substance of misuse in Anchorage. Alcohol taxes are one of the most proven public health policies to reduce alcohol misuse. Other communities in Alaska including Fairbanks, Kotzebue, Dillingham, and Juneau have recognized the opportunity and implemented alcohol taxes. It’s time for Anchorage to join them.

The challenges associated with behavioral health are complicated, but that is no excuse for hopelessness or inaction. We are seeing unacceptable levels of substance misuse, child abuse, domestic violence, and suicide in this community. These problems can be solved and can be prevented. We’ll start by building off of what’s already working in our community.

In the summer of 2018, the Fire Department stood up the Community, Outreach, Referral and Education (CORE) team to better serve patients with chronic alcohol and substance misuse and behavioral health challenges. The team identifies frequent utilizers of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and proactively reaches out to stabilize them with outreach, treatment, and care coordination. One year in, the program has been remarkably successful. For those enrolled in the program, we have achieved a 43% reduction in EMS responses to those clients. By stabilizing just eight high-utilizers of EMS services, the program created savings of approximately $450,000 in reduced EMS transport and Emergency Department charges.

Our experience with the CORE team shows that by connecting Anchorage residents with the right services at the right time, we can make a profound difference. Proposition 13 would allow our community to scale up successful programs like the CORE team and provide much-needed treatment capacity in Anchorage. It will ensure that more of our neighbors will make it out on the other side of crisis, and get back on their feet.

We want Anchorage to be a community where recovery is not only possible, it is the norm. Proposition 13 will get us closer. When we get our ballots in the mail, we’ll be voting yes on 13.

Jodie Hettrick is the Chief of the Anchorage Fire Department. Natasha Pineda is the Director of the Anchorage Health Department.

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