Alaska Legislature

Gov. Dunleavy adds telehealth, nurse licensing bills to special session agenda to mixed reactions from lawmakers

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy has added a nurse-licensing bill and a telemedicine bill to the agenda of the special legislative session underway in Juneau.

“These bills would dramatically enhance our ability to respond to the recent surge in COVID-19,” Dunleavy said on social media said after the announcement Thursday afternoon.

State legislators had mixed opinions.

Neither bill addresses masking or vaccination, preventive measures proven to limit the spread of COVID-19 and, in the case of vaccines, reduce the severity of its symptoms.

The telemedicine bill deals with the ability to treat patients remotely, by phone or video, and the nursing bill would have Alaska join a multi-state licensing system that allows a licensed nurse to more easily move from state to state.

They arrive as Dunleavy has been pressured by state lawmakers and members of the public to respond more actively to a growing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across Alaska.

This week, the co-chairs of the House Health and Social Services Committee urged him to more firmly encourage vaccination and masking, and declare another statewide public health emergency.

Dunleavy ended the state’s COVID-19 emergency in late April. It was replaced with a more limited emergency declaration by Adam Crum, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services.

In a hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee on Thursday, Crum said an emergency declaration would provide unneeded powers and would be limited to only 30 days, requiring legislative extension.

In a written statement, the co-chairs of the committee, Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, and Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage, noted that Dunleavy issued consecutive 30-day disaster declarations in 2020 and early 2021.

They said he should do so again, if needed.

“The governor should not spend unnecessary additional state resources, like special session per diem, to fix this issue when he has already stated his authority to reissue these powers if needed,” they said.

“We join Alaska’s health care leaders in urging the governor to start leading and declare a temporary 30-day disaster declaration,” their statement said.

State Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, chairman of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, said the governor’s proposed legislation could help matters.

“I think that the telemedicine definitely helps with COVID-19. I mean, you’re giving more tools to providers that allow them the opportunity to see more patients, and it’s in a safe manner,” he said.

Hearings on the bill have been scheduled from Tuesday through Thursday in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

The nurse licensing bill was previously rejected along bipartisan lines in Wilson’s committee earlier this year.

“It’s wrong to use the pandemic to move forward a policy proposal that was defeated in the legislative process,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, who voted against it.

Wilson said that if nurses are interested in a change of scenery, they might be interested in coming to Alaska, and the licensing bill would make that process easier.

Begich said that doesn’t make sense.

“You’d be uprooting yourself from your family, coming here in the winter, to deal with the exact same problems you’re dealing with in the Lower 48,” he said.

He said he would support a temporary waiver of licensing standards to allow nurses to come to the state more easily during the pandemic.

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, voted against the nurse-licensing bill earlier this year and said she would need to see an updated version before saying whether her opinion has changed. Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, also voted against the bill and did not immediately respond to questions about her opinion of the bill Thursday.