JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate has begun considering anti-COVID legislation, days after Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he would not declare a statewide COVID-19 disaster.
On Tuesday, members of the state Senate began examining legislation that would allow Alaskans to receive more medical services remotely, through telemedicine. It would also allow the state to waive additional regulations, including background checks for medical workers.
The bill is one of two proposed by the governor in place of a broader declaration that COVID-19 is a statewide disaster.
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives had requested a disaster declaration last week, as did the state’s hospital association. But on Tuesday, the director of the association testified in favor of the governor’s bill and said hospitals need help now, and getting that help matters more than a specific pathway.
“We just want any possible relief, as we experience the worst part of the surge,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Adam Crum, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said the governor’s legislation is a better option than a disaster declaration.
“A disaster declaration does not give us the specific tools that we need,” he said.
A disaster declaration “does not provide (Dunleavy) with the authority to draft, suspend or amend existing statutes. That role is left solely to the authority of Alaska’s legislative branch. This is why legislation is needed,” Crum said.
Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, leads the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which heard the bill and Crum’s testimony.
“I think there is a time and a situation to declare an emergency. I don’t think this is the time,” she said after the hearing.
As hospitals reach or exceed capacity due to a surge of COVID patients, leading members of the state House of Representatives have been urging the governor to declare an emergency.
That declaration would allow the state to waive relevant state regulations, including the things he’s proposing in his legislation, said Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
“The governor has the authority, today, to provide tools that our health care workers desperately need at no additional cost to the state, including lifting regulations that are preventing nurses and doctors from treating patients,” Stutes said on Friday.
But Costello said a disaster declaration would allow the governor to act unilaterally, taking power away from the legislative branch.
“There’s a Legislature for a reason,” she said.
On Friday, Dunleavy sent a letter rejecting the call for a disaster declaration.
“Some groups, and some legislators, have called on me to issue another disaster declaration related to COVID-19. I have no intention of doing that,” Dunleavy said. “Issuing a disaster declaration should be used sparingly, in the direst circumstances, and in the absence of a viable alternative.”
The governor has offered two bills as an alternative to an emergency declaration.
One bill would enroll Alaska into a nationwide nurse-licensing program, allowing nurses to move more easily to or from Alaska. The state has requested hundreds of new nurses through a federal program, and Glenn Hoskinson, a special assistant with the Alaska Department of Commerce, said they could get to work more quickly under the nationwide system.
The other bill is the telehealth legislation heard Tuesday.
Members of the House said they were planning to formally reply to the governor’s decision, but that response was not available Tuesday evening.
Alaska operated under a state of emergency from March 2020 through February 2021, and then in April 2021 retroactively extended the disaster in order to maintain Alaska’s eligibility for federal anti-COVID funding.
At the end of April, with COVID-19 cases declining, Dunleavy ended the disaster declaration. He said at the time that the state was “in the recovery phase, where a disaster declaration is no longer necessary.”
If the governor had not ended the declaration, it would have been in effect through the end of the year.
Additional hearings on the telehealth legislation have been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday; a vote in the full Senate is possible by the end of the week. No hearings have been scheduled on the nurse-licensing bill.
The Legislature’s special session ends Tuesday.