Beyond the budget: Bills filed addressing healthcare, fisheries issues

Alaska’s $3 billion budget hole still needs patching, but in the meantime efforts don’t stop for new legislation in other areas.

Several legislators, who began their 2017 session on Jan. 17, have filed bills addressing healthcare.

Some aim to set in motion what one lawmaker calls a long overdue “overhaul” to the way Alaska manages state run child care efforts.

House Bills 10 and 12 — both of which come from Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, encompass a wide array of adjustments to the Department of Health and Human Services. These would include allowances for parents looking to reclaim their children and a variety of adjustments about the determination process the state uses to remove children from parent’s care in the first place.

HB 43, coming from freshman Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, would allow physicians to prescribe investigational drugs.

SB 19, coming from Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski, mirrors Grenn’s bill.

The bill would allow Alaska physicians to prescribe investigational drugs to patients with terminal illnesses.

Investigational drugs are drugs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved but have passed Phase 1 of the FDA’s approval process and are undergoing further clinical trials.

Physicians may currently prescribe these methods or medications after filing extensive paperwork to detail the patient’s consent and the lack of effectiveness of other options.

“For me this comes from a policy perspective to eliminate red tape and give terminally ill Alaskans more choice,” explained Grenn.

The bills fall into a broader national effort of so-called Right to Try laws, which aim to get more terminally ill patients access to otherwise unavailable investigational drugs. Currently, 33 states have such laws on the books and another 15 have had Right to Try legislation introduced.

If legislators are successful, another bill would add the right to die along with the right to try.

HB 54, from Sen. Harriet Drummond, R-Anchorage, would allow the voluntary termination of life for terminally ill patients. Currently, only six U.S. states allow this measure.

Still other bills are only peripherally related to healthcare in that they involve the Department of Health and Social Services.

A Mat-Su Valley legislator has a pair of bills apparently designed to curb food stamp program expense by cutting off those who are able to work and those who are not fulfilling financial obligations.

HB 67, from freshman Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, would “prohibit the Department of Health and Social Services from requesting, accepting, or attempting to renew or extend a waiver of work requirements or time limits for an able-bodied adult, without dependents, in the food stamp program.”

HB 68, also from Eastman, would establish “An Act relating to disqualification from the food stamp program for refusal to cooperate with the child support services agency or for past due child support payments; relating to the duties of the Department of Health and Social Services; and relating to the duties of the child support services agency.”

Another Wasilla legislator is looking to expand government program services, adding adult foster care homes to a Medicaid waiver system.

In the Senate, SB 10 from Wasilla Republican Mike Dunleavy would offer Medicaid community-based waivers for adult foster care homes, establish an adult foster care home license and procedures in the Department of Health and Social Services, and provide for the transition of severely disabled individuals from foster care to adult foster care homes.

Other bills look to get ahead of drug problems. 

SB 20, coming from Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, would place the synthetic opioid U-47700 onto the state’s highest controlled substances list alongside other opioids.

U-47700 is a foreign-made synthetic opioid and the topic of heated media coverage in the Lower 48, as it contributed to the overdose of pop music star Prince in combination of with another synthetic opioid, Fentanyl.

Dozens of deaths in 2016 were attributed to the drug — including in Alaska — which itself comes during a nationwide opiate abuse crisis that has hit Alaska especially hard.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency declared its intent to move the U-47700 onto the Schedule I Controlled Substances Act listing, the most restricted category for substances in the U.S. The DEA said the scheduling “is necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety.”

Fisheries bills

Fish formed one of the slippery elements of Gov. Bill Walker’s suite of industry tax bills during the marathon 2016 legislative session.

In trying to scrape together as many funds as possible, Walker’s general fish tax increase enraged virtually every commercial fishing sector in the state.

Representatives from each sector acknowledged that they will likely need to kick more money into state coffers, but said the governor’s tax plan didn’t account for regional and operational variations across the board. Further, fishermen felt that if no other industry taxes moved forward, they should not be singled out.

No word yet has surfaced on what kind of fishing industry taxes will come in 2017, but legislators nonetheless will continue pushing fish-related bills.

HB 29, coming from Reps. Geran Tarr and Les Gara, would ban the sale of genetically modified fish in the Last Frontier.

Genetically engineered salmon dominated headlines in 2016 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its Canada equivalent approved the sale of AquaBounty salmon, which splices several kinds of wild salmon with ocean pout to create a fish that grows twice as fast as wild salmon.

Tarr’s and Gara’s bill could be seen as an act of solidarity with Alaska’s Congressional delegation, which has fought tooth and nail over the FDA’s decision. 

Other bills will seek to make funding more available for commercial fishermen in coastal communities.

HB 56, from Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, would add $100,000 to the amount of commercial fishing loans made by the Department of Community, Commerce, and Economic Development.

Currently, fishermen may not have an outstanding balance of $300,000 on their loans. Ortiz’s bill would raise that amount to $400,000.

These loans are intended for items like fishing vessel purchases and safety upgrades. According to Ortiz’s office, the $300,000 outstanding balance limit was last updated in 1982. If adjusted for inflation, that cap would be worth $746,000 this year.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].


01/25/2017 - 1:01pm