Alaska Legislature

Telehealth legislation intended to fight the COVID pandemic has died in the Alaska House

JUNEAU — A bill intended to relax state laws on telemedicine and health care workers’ background checks has died in the Alaska House of Representatives, lawmakers said Monday afternoon.

The legislation, written by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, was intended to help hospitals and other medical facilities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it lost support in the House when a Sunday-night vote added an amendment that could have prevented hospitals from limiting patient visits.

Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said that change created a large enough problem that it outweighed the benefits.

“It just opens up the high potential for unintended consequences, all when the sole intent behind the bill was to bring some relief and enhance the ability to respond. This is a distraction and causes our facilities to take a step back, and that’s frustrating,” he said.

With the association’s opposition, the bill lost the support of the House’s governing coalition.

The amendment’s supporters declined to change their position, and instead of advancing the bill toward a final vote, members of the majority sent it back to a committee.

On Monday, Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said the bill will not leave that committee before the end of a special session that expires at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday night.

She said her understanding is that even if the bill were to pass the House, it could not pass the Senate in its current form.

As originally written by the Dunleavy administration, the bill would have temporarily waived state criminal background checks for new healthcare workers if their employer conducted a separate background check.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services suffered a cyberattack in May, and the department’s background-check system still is not functioning properly, state officials told lawmakers. With the state attempting to hire hundreds of new health care workers to cope with a staffing shortage, they want to be prepared to move quickly.

Another part of the bill would have temporarily waived a state law that requires health care workers to conduct in-person exams before prescribing treatment. Pausing the law until next year would have reduced close contacts that could have spread COVID, officials said.

No section of the bill dealt with COVID-19 vaccination, but Republican legislators said that topic was a top priority for their constituents.

“That issue, more so than the PFD or the long-term fiscal plan, is what is on Alaskans’ minds right now, with regard to President Biden’s unilateral decision to require businesses of 100 or more employees to either require vaccination or have a testing plan,” said Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.

In the Senate, lawmakers added language that would have allowed Alaskans to opt out of vaccination mandates.

A House committee stripped out that language, but before voting was cut off, House Republicans were preparing to propose new opt-out language.

Before they did that, Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, proposed that hospitals be required to allow patients a “support person” during treatment.

Federal law already requires that, but the requirement has been partially waived during the COVID-19 pandemic. During emotional speeches on the House floor, lawmakers said they heard from constituents whose family members died alone because they were barred from a bedside.

“There was example after example of Alaskans that are left to die alone, and that is not acceptable,” said House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla.

Currently, decisions on allowing visitors are made on a hospital-by-hospital basis. In Anchorage, Providence Hospital does allow visitors at the deathbed. Alaska Regional Hospital said last week that it does as well.

A spokeswoman at Alaska Native Medical Center told a Daily News reporter that there are no visitors for COVID patients, but “exceptions can be made for end of life.”

Vance’s amendment passed 20-16, with House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, joining 18 Republican legislators in support.

Soon afterward, Kosin and members of the hospital association contacted lawmakers to say the amendment was a problem.

Kosin said neither he nor others knew how the state would have enforced that rule.

“The immediate question then, especially from a legal standpoint: Well, are we allowed to make judgment calls to limit visitation when we think it’s in the interest of safety for everyone?” he said.

On social media, the hospital association said simply, “Hospital visitation policies should be made by highly qualified medical professionals and clinicians, not politicians.”

“I find that very troubling,” Vance said. “I’ve heard from more Alaskans on this issue than I have about any other issue besides the PFD. We have to maintain human dignity. Otherwise, what is the point of safeguarding someone else’s life, if we’re taking from another?”

Carpenter said experts should provide guidance to policymakers, who take into account all perspectives when making decisions.

He compared the issue to civilian control of the military, a guiding principle of American government.

“So in our country, do we have a civilian control of our health care? Or do doctors and health care organizations control policy?” he said.

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