State wrestles with sizeable backlog of Medicaid applications

Alaska is significantly behind on approving Medicaid applications and in some cases applicants are waiting for months. As of Jan. 29, Alaska had a backlog of 15,639 cases of new applicants or renewals on the books. About two-thirds of those, or 10,200 cases, were filed in 2018. The average wait time to be approved is currently 55 days, according to Clinton Bennett, the media relations manager for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. That’s the average, but not everyone is waiting that long, he wrote in an email. “Cases that are tagged as emergent, involve a pregnant woman or adding a newborn to any case are being processed on average within 2 days,” he wrote. Alaska has a fairly large Medicaid population with about 210,276 people enrolled in the Medicaid and CHIP programs as of October 2018, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That’s about 24 percent of the state’s total population, and up from 123,335 people enrolled at the end of July 2015, just before the Medicaid expansion took effect in the state. Though it’s still a sizeable backlog, it’s significantly down from the total in May 2018, when the Alaska Ombudsman’s Office published a report highlighting the difficulties in the Division of Public Assistance. At the time, the ombudsman noted a backlog of more than 20,000 cases, itself down from 30,000 in July 2017. The eligibility staff couldn’t keep up, in part because of the increasing number of cases per worker — up 24 percent since the expansion in 2015 — and other types of applications for public assistance, such as food stamps, which began increasing during the height of the economic recession in July 2017. The state practices pre-enrollment eligibility verification, Bennett said, meaning that eligibility systems or workers must verify income before approving someone to enter the program. The state cooperates with the federally-facilitated marketplace, Healthcare.gov, to verify eligibility for low-income individuals. If Healthcare.gov is unable to determine eligibility, the state will take over from there. The Legislature also passed a bill reforming the state’s Medicaid program in 2016. One of those requirements was to implement a new technology system. Changing over systems amid the increased volume after the expansion may have led to the backlog boom, said Tricia Brooks, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families. “I think that in Alaska, it was sort of a perfect storm,” she said. “… You have this new system coming in, (the state was) a late adopter of the Medicaid expansion, so you have this volume going on. The combination of those two going on is really tough, particularly when you’re in an environment where you’re changing the business rules.” Alaska is one of a handful of states that have an extensive delay for processing applications, Brooks said. The federal standard is 45 days for non-disability Medicaid applications, and 90 days for disability Medicaid applications. That delay can mean that some go without coverage, and it makes things complicated for the administrators when some are renewals as opposed to new applications. “Backlogs affect both new applications as well as renewals,” Brooks said. “If the state’s unable to keep up with renewals, they should not be automatically terminating someone because they’re not able to renew applications.” The Republican Senate Majority, which backed the original 2016 Medicaid redesign legislation, is concerned about the eligibility backlog as well. Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said the current process is weighing the state down and allowing some people who do not qualify to obtain coverage. Other states dealing with a similar problem have hired third-party qualified contractors to screen applicants. Giessel said that’s a step Alaska should take, too. The backlog can be frustrating for providers as well as for recipients, she said. “I think it’s the frustration that any compassionate Alaskan has,” she said. “When they’re on waiting lists so long, it’s not compassionate. It’s not compassionate. We want to fix that. In addition, we know there are folks on the rolls that are not eligible, that shouldn’t be.” The reform was a big request of the department, but it is making some progress and reporting savings, Giessel said. There are still changes that could make things better such as moving regulations through that allow expanded coverage of services via telehealth and possibly breaking up the Department of Health and Social Services into smaller departments, allowing for more efficient management, she said. Two bills prefiled for the 2019 session propose adding work requirements for certain eligible adults. Giessel said that’s one other item the Senate is considering in the wake of Medicaid expansion, to encourage able-bodied adults on Medicaid to work. “Am I personally happy with the way Mediciad reform is going? It’s slow,” she said. “It’s very much like the glaciers in Alaska. They’re there, but moving very slowly.” To reduce the backlog in Alaska, Brooks pointed to a number of steps other states have taken, including the step Giessel mentioned to hire a third-party contractor to verify eligibility. Another way, which has been encouraged by CMS, is to use eligibility data from the SNAP program to determine eligibility for Medicaid. Most people who qualify for SNAP also qualify for Medicaid, Brooks said. Another logjam in the system can be as simple as people calling the Division of Public Health to check the status of their application. That takes staff time to answer the phones. One way to address that problem is to launch online account that allow people to check the status of their applications online, Brooks said. The majority of states have now done that, she said. “Online accounts really improve the efficiency of the eligibility operations,” she said. “I think there’s been less trouble with the online accounts than there have with the underlying eligibility rules engine. It is a way to offload some of the work volume.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Fund value drops 3.19% in first half of FY19

The managers of Alaska’s Permanent Fund did their best to mitigate losses from volatile financial markets in the second half of 2018 as the fund ended the year with a balance of $60.4 billion. Permanent Fund investments lost 3.19 percent of their value in the second half of 2018 — also the first half of the State of Alaska 2019 fiscal year, which began July 1. The Permanent Fund ended the 2018 fiscal year last June 30 with a balance of $64.8 billion, from which the state appropriated roughly $2.7 billion to pay out Permanent Fund dividends and support government services. Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. CEO Angela Rodell emphasized in a formal statement that the fund is invested to meet long-range goals. “Within a long-term investment horizon, it is anticipated that the global markets will go up and down; it is a part of the buying, selling, trading process of the portfolio’s holdings,” Rodell said. “And while we invest with the intent that they will go up more than they go down, there are going to be dips. Our team is poised to take advantage of those dips.” Despite the negative returns, the fund outperformed the corporation’s passive investment index benchmark, which comparably measured losses of 6.54 percent in the first half of fiscal 2019, according to a Feb. 4 APFC release. The Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account, which holds income and is the spendable portion of the fund, had a Dec. 31 balance of $16.6 billion, according to an APFC report. The challenging first half to fiscal 2019 is in stark contrast to 2018 when the corporation achieved returns of 10.74 percent. Most recently, APFC reported the fund had rebounded to a balance of more than $63.9 billion as of Jan. 31. However, corporation executives noted the day-to-day value can vary widely and the $63.9 billion includes more than $1 billion in liabilities — most of which is the remaining state appropriation amount that has yet to be transferred to the General Fund. Calculated as 5.25 percent of the fund’s five-year average value, the fiscal 2020 percent of market value, or POMV, appropriation is expected to be roughly $2.9 billion. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has demanded the Legislature pay a statutorily calculated dividend, meaning about $1.9 billion from the 2020 POMV draw would go to PFDs. He has also proposed separate legislation to repay forgone PFD amounts over the past three years as former Gov. Bill Walker and the Legislature reduced dividends while debating how to resolve multibillion-dollar annual budget deficits. The PFD repayments would total another nearly $2 billion draw from the Earnings Reserve over three years; the 2020 supplemental PFD draw, which would be made later this year, would be $565 million, according to the Revenue Department. The first half 2019 losses were driven by a decline of 10.9 percent in the fund’s $23.2 billion public equities portfolio made up of stocks. At about 38 percent of the overall asset allocation, public equities make up the largest portion of Permanent Fund investments. For comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost roughly 4 percent of its value during the period. An APFC release states that public equity managers were “positioned for better than feared economic fundamentals,” and as a result “turned in relatively weak performance versus their benchmarks.” Private investments did much better. The $8.2 billion invested in private equity and special opportunities returned 11.86 percent during the period, while the infrastructure portion of the fund’s $5.2 billion in private income investments returned 9.75 percent. The fund’s $14.7 billion fixed income portfolio lost 0.15 percent in the first half of 2019 as listed infrastructure and real estate investment trusts fell in concurrence with equity markets. Direct real estate investments, totaling $3.9 billion, lost 2.05 percent as a result of recent property valuations, according to APFC. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

BP aims for 40 more at Prudhoe

BP navigated its way through the oil price depression and is now focused on new targets to keep the old Prudhoe Bay field vibrant for another 40 years. BP Alaska President Janet Weiss said the company’s emphasis on “40 more years” at Prudhoe, which began pumping oil in 1977, is more than just a mantra. “It’s about 40 more, it really is. When you think about Alaska in an energy renaissance, it’s really important to have the strength of that foundation. You’ve got to have a strong Prudhoe Bay; you’ve got to have a strong Kuparuk area to really help support the infrastructure it takes for all of the sexy development that’s going on right now,” Weiss said. The “energy renaissance” is a reference to the suite of new, large oil projects on the Slope that are in varying stages of advanced exploration, permitting and development. Weiss and other BP Alaska leaders discussed the company’s plans, challenges and opportunities in the state during an hour-long sit down Jan. 31 with the Journal and Anchorage Daily News. Company officials attacked the idea of producing from Prudhoe for decades more by working it backwards while oil prices were at their lowest, and what it takes is ongoing efficiency improvements, according to Weiss. BP Alaska is continually working to lower its cost base by 5 percent per year, she said. “We took a look at what it would take for us to be at mid-life and we’re on that path and what it basically does take is really minimizing decline in a big way,” Weiss said. The story of North Slope production decline — from more than 2 million barrels per day in 1988 to about 520,000 barrels per day currently — is well told. Oil production at Prudhoe has followed the same trend; it plateaued at about 1.5 million barrels daily through much of the 1980s and has gradually fallen since. BP, the operator of the field on behalf of co-owners ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, has largely managed to stabilize production from Prudhoe and smaller satellite fields in the 280,000 barrels per day range since 2016. Initially projected to produce about 9.5 billion barrels, the field has now surpassed 13 billion. “Forty more is really about ushering in modernization, transformation, digitization, agile working,” she said. “Doing things better up there so we can extend the life of that absolutely world-class reservoir.” BP Alaska Vice President of Reservoir Development Fabian Wirnkar said Prudhoe has a bit more than 1 billion barrels left to produce from traditional oil-bearing formations. The company is currently in the midst of the first, full-field 3-D seismic data shoot over the field, which will cover 455 square miles. Started in late January, the shoot should take about 90 days to complete. The resulting data will start to become available over the summer, according to Wirnkar, who Weiss has dubbed “Dr. Grow.” He came to Alaska a little more than a year ago at her request after working around the world for BP. Wirnkar said he believes there are still new reservoirs to be found within Prudhoe and the seismic shoot will help the company identify those otherwise “hard to find fluids.” BP also has two drilling rigs working at Prudhoe this winter. The rigs will combine to drill or work over 35 to 40 wells, according to Weiss. “With our partners we are all in agreement that there are still some significant resources here; some that we don’t even know. I always tell Janet that when I was in the Lower 48 I worked a lot in the Permian and there was a time when they were like ‘there’s nothing left in the Permian,’ and you turn around now and you have some new resources and new rocks that are showing up,” Wirnkar said. Revitalized by the shale revolution, the U.S. Geological Survey now believes the greater Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico holds more than 46 billion barrels of recoverable oil. New drilling techniques, particularly horizontal drilling, have helped greatly in improving production while keeping costs down. Wirnkar compared horizontal drilling to doctors who install a stent in a patient’s heart by accessing the bloodstream at the femoral artery in the upper leg and winding their way towards the heart. “Once you start doing some investigating you might be surprised with what you see and so that’s one of the things in BP we’re looking at,” he said. “OK, where can we start looking at some of the bypass rocks that we thought were just seals or that we thought were just source rocks and for some reason now the have become a reservoir? We have reservoir experts who are continually looking and testing the possibilities out there.” One of the long-term possibilities to help keep Prudhoe going is making viscous, or heavy, oil production viable. Industry officials believe there are upwards of 38 billion barrels of viscous oil under the Slope and much of it is quite shallow at depths of less than 5,000 feet. Weiss said BP partnered with ARCO in the early 2000s to spend about $750 million first trying “really simple, straight-hole” wells to produce viscous oil, which doesn’t flow as well as the light crude Slope fields are known for. Subsequent tests of complex multilateral wells proved unsuccessful when the wells started breaking at the junction of the lateral and vertical wellbores, Wirnkar added. More recently, BP has concluded that viscous-focused wells do indeed need to be a bit “simpler” and the company believes it has a better completion technique to keep the junctions intact, according to Weiss. The work has taken the cost to produce viscous oil from roughly $80 per barrel closer to the $50 range, she said, while explaining why viscous oil needs to be blended with current production sooner than later to keep all the oil flowing smoothly. “You want to get after the viscous and heavy (oil) at the time that you’re still sending light down the pipeline. That is the biggest issue that’s out there and why we look at it a lot with TAPS (the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System),” Weiss said. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. spends significant time and money to find ways to keep the oil in the pipeline warm and moving at low volumes, and heavier oil could add to the challenge. Italian major Eni and Hilcorp, BP’s partner in the North Slope Milne Point field and the Liberty prospect, have led improvements to viscous oil processing facilities, according to Weiss. She noted that one of the major reasons BP agreed in 2014 to partner with Hilcorp at Milne Point was the Hilcorp’s work on developing viscous oil. A final investment decision on Liberty, which has had its federal permit issued last year challenged in court, is expected in early 2020, according to the BP Alaska group. Regarding Prudhoe Bay wells that have had their outer casing “jacked up” due to warming permafrost, Weiss said the issue has arisen on a “handful” of old wells from the 1970s before the field started production. The outer casing on those wells is set in the permafrost. “Because that outer shoe was in the permafrost you saw this kind of ripping apart and this well jacking up,” she said, adding BP has removed the well houses on each well in question and has been working with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates production in the state. The AOGCC has a hearing set for Feb. 7 on the issue. Finally, a big driver of the recent cost reductions at BP — and in the industry overall — is automation, which likely means somewhat reduced job levels in aspects of the industry’s work. However, automation also makes the work safer, Weiss highlighted. “It’s about changing the nature of the jobs and automating solutions so we’re less transactional,” she said. “The workforce of tomorrow does need to move upstream, solving the new problems and then we automate those solutions. If you don’t do that you lose out.” BP’s current Alaska workforce is about 1,500 and the company contracts for nearly another 4,000 workers, according to the group. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Democratic contenders hoping to run on soaking the rich

WASHINGTON (AP) — The last Democrat to win a presidential election, Barack Obama, ran in 2012 on a platform of raising taxes for top earners to nearly 40 percent. Now a new crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls is signaling that they want to go even further. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is floating a 2 percent tax on all assets of people with a net worth of more than $50 million — a moon-shot plan that could face legal challenges for hitting investments, homes and cars, not just income. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is pitching a steeply higher inheritance tax on large estates. Others targeting higher income earners include California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has proposed rolling back the recent GOP tax cuts for wealthier families to pay for tax rebates for middle- and lower-income earners. The eruption of high-end tax proposals is a shift for Democrats, who have traditionally not centered their presidential bids around tax hikes — particularly at this early stage of a campaign. It underscores the party’s march to the left and candidates’ desire to tap into the Wall Street-rattling energy of liberal voters. “If you’re looking for a bumper sticker, ‘tax rich people’ is a pretty good bumper sticker,” said Howard Glickman of the centrist Tax Policy Center. Beyond its messaging power, taxing the wealthy also gives Democratic contenders a way to propose paying for their sweeping progressive agendas. Sanders put it simply last week: “We need additional revenue if we’re going to provide health care for all, rebuild our infrastructure, make public colleges and universities tuition-free.” The rush to tax the rich has prompted criticism from others eyeing the White House — namely billionaires Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican who is considering running as a Democrat, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is mulling an independent run for president. Schultz says he was driven from the Democratic Party by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising star who’s issued her own call for a 70 percent income tax rate on people making more than $10 million. Democratic strategists worry Schultz could peel off a small but vital slice of affluent voters and help President Donald Trump get re-elected in a three-way race. But to progressive Democratic contenders, the criticism from billionaires like Schultz proves their point. “The billionaires are writing the rules around here. And guess what: all those rules favor the billionaires,” Warren said in an interview. Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to cast the Democratic tax proposals as damaging to an economy that has steadily grown since Trump took office. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a senior GOP member of the tax-writing Finance Committee, described Warren and Sanders’ tax plans as playing off “the politics of personal envy.” He predicted economic blowback from reversing the current tax laws muscled through by Republicans in 2017. The $2 trillion tax bill Trump signed into law was a boon for many wealthy Americans, with low-and middle-income Americans receiving smaller cuts. While many Democrats have previously backed higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans, they’ve rarely made the issue such an early focal point of their campaigns. Obama shied away from tax increases during his first run for office, as did almost every Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984 pledged to raise voters’ taxes and lost to President Reagan in an historic landslide. But polls now show that voters are happy to see higher-end taxes, to a point. In April 2018, Gallup found that about 6 in 10 Americans thought the wealthy didn’t pay their fair share of taxes. A Fox News poll last week found 7 in 10 Americans supported raising taxes on people making more than 10 million dollars a year and 65 percent on those making more than $1 million. But support plunges when family income drops, with only 44 percent backing higher taxes on those making more than $250,000. “What’s happened sometimes in these debates is the ‘on the wealthy’ gets left out in some people’s minds,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “The question is to what extent you can control the interpretation” of tax increases. Democrats seem to have learned that lesson, at least with the 70-percent rate from Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, and a Warren proposal that would only hit an estimated 75,000 households in the United States — the upper echelon of U.S. wealth. “It’s clear that the people they’re targeting are the very, very, very well-off,” said Alan Viard of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But Viard and other critics warn that the higher Democrats go, the less revenue they may actually get. That’s because the wealthy can shift around assets to avoid new levies. And Warren’s proposal, because it taxes more than income, may not comply with the Constitution, which was amended to allow the federal government to tax income, not wealth. Glickman said that Warren’s tax may be the most politically viable, because it targets such wealthy individuals. But it may be the toughest to implement. Several European countries have recently eliminated wealth taxes because they are so hard to administer, and the value of the mega-rich’s holdings so hard to pin down, Glickman said. Economists advising Warren’s campaign project it will raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years, but Glickman was skeptical. “When that much money is at stake, rich guys are going to go out and hire really smart tax lawyers,” he said. While Warren has enthusiastically embraced her tax plan’s impact on the wealthy, Harris’ early messaging has focused more on boosting middle-income earners with a $500 a month refundable tax credit to households earning less than $100,000 a year. Harris would pay for this partly by eliminating the Trump tax cuts for households earning more than $100,000. That could be politically risky because this group, while comfortable, is largely not the mega-rich. ^ Riccardi reported from Denver. AP polling writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.

5 reasons why autonomous cars aren’t coming anytime soon

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In the world of autonomous vehicles, Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley are bustling hubs of development and testing. But ask those involved in self-driving vehicles when we might actually see them carrying passengers in every city, and you’ll get an almost universal answer: Not anytime soon. An optimistic assessment is 10 years. Many others say decades as researchers try to conquer a number of obstacles. The vehicles themselves will debut in limited, well-mapped areas within cities and spread outward. The fatal crash in Arizona involving an Uber autonomous vehicle in March slowed progress, largely because it hurt the public’s perception of the safety of vehicles. Companies slowed research to be more careful. Google’s Waymo, for instance, decided not to launch a fully autonomous ride-hailing service in the Phoenix area and will rely on human backup drivers to ferry passengers, at least for now. Here are the problems that researchers must overcome to start giving rides without humans behind the wheel: Snow and weather When it’s heavy enough to cover the pavement, snow blocks the view of lane lines that vehicle cameras use to find their way. Researchers so far haven’t figured out a way around this. That’s why much of the testing is done in warm-weather climates such as Arizona and California. Heavy snow, rain, fog and sandstorms can obstruct the view of cameras. Light beams sent out by laser sensors can bounce off snowflakes and think they are obstacles. Radar can see through the weather, but it doesn’t show the shape of an object needed for computers to figure out what it is. “It’s like losing part of your vision,” says Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers are working on laser sensors that use a different light beam wavelength to see through snowflakes, said Greg McGuire, director of the MCity autonomous vehicle testing lab at the University of Michigan. Software also is being developed so vehicles can differentiate between real obstacles and snowflakes, rain, fog, and other conditions. But many companies are still trying to master the difficult task of driving on a clear day with steady traction. “Once we are able to have a system reliably perform in those, then we’ll start working toward expanding to those more challenging conditions,” said Noah Zych, Uber’s head of system safety for self-driving cars. Pavement lines and curbs Across the globe, roadway marking lines are different, or they may not even exist. Lane lines aren’t standardized, so vehicles have to learn how to drive differently in each city. Sometimes there aren’t any curbs to help vehicles judge lane width. For instance, in Pittsburgh’s industrial “Strip District,” where many self-driving vehicles are tested, the city draws lines across the narrow lanes to mark where vehicles should stop for stop signs. Sometimes the lines are so far back and buildings are so close to the street that autonomous cars can’t see traffic on the cross street if they stop at the line. One workaround is to program vehicles to stop for the line and creep forward. “Is it better to do a double stop?” asked Pete Rander, president of Argo AI, an autonomous vehicle company in which Ford has invested heavily. “Since intersections vary, it’s not that easy.” Dealing with human drivers For many years, autonomous vehicles will have to deal with humans who don’t always play by the rules. They double-park or walk in front of cars. Recently in Pittsburgh, an Argo backup driver had to take over when his car stopped during a right turn, blocking an intersection when it couldn’t immediately decide whether to go around a double-parked delivery truck. “Even if the car might eventually figure something out, it’s shared space, and it’s socially unacceptable” to block traffic, Rander said. Humans also make eye contact with other drivers to make sure they’re looking in the right direction, something still being developed for autonomous vehicles. Add to that the antagonism that some feel toward robots. People have reportedly been harassing Waymo’s autonomous test vehicles near Phoenix. The Arizona Republic reported in December that police is suburban Chandler have documented at least 21 cases in the past two years, including a man waiving a gun at a Waymo van and people who slashed tires and threw rocks. One Jeep forced the vans off the road six times. Left turns Deciding when to turn left in front of oncoming traffic without a green arrow is one of the more difficult tasks for human drivers and one that causes many crashes. Autonomous vehicles have the same trouble. Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a recent interview that his company’s vehicles are still encountering occasional problems at intersections. “I think the things that humans have challenges with, we’re challenged with as well,” he said. “So sometimes unprotected lefts are super challenging for a human, sometimes they’re super challenging for us.” Consumer acceptance The fatal Uber crash near Phoenix last year did more than push the pause button on testing. It also rattled consumers who someday will be asked to ride in self-driving vehicles. Surveys taken after the Uber crash showed that drivers are reluctant to give up control to a computer. One by AAA found that 73 percent of American drivers would be too fearful to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. That’s up from 63 percent in late 2017. Autonomous vehicle companies are showing test passengers information on screens about where the vehicles are headed and what its sensors are seeing. The more people ride, the more they trust the vehicles, says Waymo’s Krafcik. “After they become more and more confident they rarely look at the screens, and they’re on their phones or relaxing or sleeping,” he said.

Movers and Shakers for Feb. 10

Dr. Niki Tshibaka and Karen Melin have been appointed to leadership positions within the Department of Education and Early Development. Tshibaka has been named assistant commissioner, and will lead DEED’s health and safety team. Tshibaka is an attorney and has been advancing civil rights, human rights, and social justice causes in government, non-profit, and private sectors for more than 16 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Amherst College and a juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School. Tshibaka will coordinate the efforts of multiple state departments to address safety and well-being issues. This work will include collaborating with students, school districts, tribes, community organizations, non-profits, and families to maximize educational opportunities. Melin has been named deputy commissioner. Melin previously served as an education administrator and education specialist at DEED, most recently serving as the project coordinator for the Alaska’s Education Challenge and the Every Student Succeeds Act. Previously, Ms. Melin worked for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District as an assessment and multi-tiered system of support coordinator. She holds certification in Alaska as a teacher, and has experience both as a reading specialist and an elementary teacher. She holds an associate’s degree in early childhood education from Evangel College and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Alaska Southeast. Rounding out Commissioner Dr. Michael Johnson’s executive leadership team is Brittany Hartmann. Hartmann has wide-ranging legislative, public relations, and research experience in public education policy in Alaska, having previously served as a legislative aide and member of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Education Committee. Hartmann will serve as DEED’s legislative liaison, and the primary point of contact for Johnson. After four decades at R&M Consultants Inc., Senior Vice President of Earth Sciences Charlie Riddle, CPG, and Group Manager of Structural Engineering Duane Anderson, PE, have retired. Riddle and Anderson joined R&M in its infancy: Riddle in 1974 as a field geologist assigned to work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and Anderson as a structural engineer in 1975, working on the Gulkana River Pipeline Bridge for TAPS. Riddle became director of R&M’s Earth Sciences Department in 1992, taking over management and responsibility for the department’s growth and direction. His notable projects include the U.S. Navy Over the Horizon Radar Facility in Amchitka, numerous projects in support of TAPS, multiple versions of the proposed gas pipeline, the Susitna Dam Project and Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Project. Over his lengthy career, Anderson has designed numerous facilities valued in excess of $75 million. His experience has been varied and diverse, but has largely been focused on waterfront, bridge, military, utility and school projects throughout Alaska. Anderson became Group Manager of Structural Engineering in 1993, where he has been responsible for building the firm’s structural business line. In 2016, Anderson was recognized as a Fellow with the American Society of Civil Engineers and was nominated for Engineer of the Year that same year. He has worked on numerous projects throughout the years, most notably the Kodiak Ferry Terminal and Dock Improvements, Kotzebue Shore Avenue, Port of Alaska Engineering Services Term Contract, Elmendorf Airforce Base F22 Weather Shelter, U.S. Navy Submarine Acoustic Measurement Facility and Thompson Pass Highline Design for TAPS. CRW Engineering Group LLC, a local engineering and land surveying firm, recently promoted two long-term employees to the position of principal. Justin Keene, PE, is a lifelong Alaskan and began at CRW in 2000 as a summer intern before joining full-time in 2003. Since then, he has served as a project manager/engineer on a variety of civil engineering projects throughout Alaska involving transportation, site, and utility (water, sewer, and storm drain) infrastructure. Keene is currently a member of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Montana State University in Bozeman. Anthony Robinson, PLS, CFedS, is a senior land surveyor and certified federal surveyor with more than 22 years of experience leading field surveys and mapping for design, right-of-way, land/site development, and construction projects. He is also CRW’s chief drone officer and a FAA-certified unmanned aerial vehicle pilot. Robinson has worked throughout Alaska specializing in land surveying in remote areas. He graduated from Michigan Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in land surveying and an associate’s degree in civil engineering. He joined CRW in 2008. Daniel Mitchell of Cook Inlet Region Inc. and Dr. Thomas Yetman of Providence Medical Group Alaska have joined the board of directors of United Way of Anchorage. Mitchell is chief financial officer at CIRI, where he oversees the Finance and Accounting and Business Development departments. Before joining CIRI in 2018, Mitchell was a managing director at KPMG LLP’s Anchorage office. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage and is a certified public accountant. Yetman, a Navy veteran with more than 30 years in the health-care field, is chief executive officer of Providence Medical Group Alaska, which provides primary and specialty care through Providence Alaska Medical Center and The Children’s Hospital at Providence. Before joining Providence here in 2018, he served as CEO and chief medical officer at Providence Medical Group Northwest Washington. An obstetrician/gynecologist, Yetman holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California San Diego and a medical degree from George Washington University. The United Way board’s new officers are Belinda Breaux, chair, of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.; Natasha Pope, vice chair, First National Bank Alaska; Beth Stuart, treasurer, KPMG; and Mike Dunn, secretary, Hilcorp Alaska. Bob Griffin of Anchorage and Sally Stockhausen of Ketchikan were appointed to the state Board of Education and Early Development, and Tiffany Scott of Kotzebue was reappointed. The two new members and Scott were sworn into office at the board’s meeting in Juneau on Feb. 4. Griffin was appointed Jan. 15 to fill the seat for the Public At-Large, replacing Barbara Thompson, who resigned. Griffin’s term expires March 1, 2024. Griffin is an airline captain with Alaska Airlines and a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. He is a current member of the Anchorage School District Capital Improvement Advisory Committee and the former chair of the ASD Budget Advisory Commission. Griffin holds a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stockhausen was appointed Jan. 15 to fill the seat for the First Judicial District, replacing Rebecca Himschoot. Stockhausen’s term expires March 1, 2021. Stockhausen has served as a special education teacher in Alaska for more than 15 years. She currently holds certification in Alaska as a teacher, and serves as a special education teacher and department chair with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District. Stockhausen holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from John Brown University and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Scott was reappointed March 1 to fill the seat for the Second Judicial District. Scott’s term expires March 1, 2024. Scott is employed by the Maniilaq Health Center as a registered nurse in the emergency department. She holds an associate’s degree in nursing from the University of Alaska Anchorage and a bachelor’s degree in extension studies from Harvard University Extension School. Scott is a former member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board.

FISH FACTOR: Concerns raised over increase to Pacific halibut harvest

Contrary to all expectations, commercial catches of Pacific halibut were increased for 2019 in all but one Alaska region. The numbers were revealed Feb. 1 at the International Pacific Halibut Commission annual meeting in Victoria, British Columbia. The reason was due to increased estimates of the overall halibut biomass based on expanded surveys last summer from Northern California to the Bering Sea, said Doug Bowen who operates Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “There’s a couple of strong year classes from 2011 and 2012 that are just starting to show up in the commercial catches and I think the scientists are cautiously optimistic that we could see some better harvests as a result of those halibut entering the fishery,” he said in a phone call as he was leaving the meetings. The coastwide commercial catches were increased to nearly 25 million pounds, almost 6 percent higher than 2018. Alaska’s share will be just less than 20 million pounds, a boost of about 3 million pounds. Southeast Alaska’s catch was upped by just more than 1 percent to 3.6 million pounds; the Central Gulf gets a nearly 10 percent increase to more than 8 million pounds. The Western Gulf is the only Alaska region to get a halibut reduction; a catch of 2.3 million pounds is a drop of more than 11 percent. Halibut harvests at the two Aleutian Islands regions were increased to more than 1 million pounds and the Bering Sea catches went up by nearly 30 percent to top 2 million pounds. Bowen said the increases came despite concerns by IPHC executive director, Dr. David Wilson. “He feels that any coastwide catches over 20 million pounds will result in declines in the biomass. So, it is interesting that the catch limits are going up in light of the fact that we do have both declining recruitment and harvest rates coastwide,” Bowen said. The halibut fishery will open on March 15 and run through Nov. 14, said Malcolm Milne, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association. And in more good news for Alaska, Milne added that next year’s IPHC annual meeting will be held in Anchorage. Deckhands wanted The call is out for Alaskans interested in learning firsthand about commercial fishing. It’s the second year for the Crewmember Apprenticeship program hosted by the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. More than 100 applied last year from all over the country, over half were women, and 13 were placed on local boats. “It’s very exciting to see so many young people interested in entering the industry,” said Tara Racine, ALFA communications and program development coordinator. “You always hear about the graying of the fleet but it shows that the interest is out there. Young people just need these resources to explore and get involved.” ALFA received a $70,000 matching grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to launch the program last year and to help support expansion of similar apprenticeships in Alaska. “We are hoping to share any information and lessons that we’ve learned and materials we’ve created from this program and give it to anyone interested in doing a program like this,” Racine said. Most of the recruits last year went out on longline and troll vessels and plans include expanding to seiners and gillnetters in a flexible fishing schedule. “We have short and long term programs,” she explained. “It could be just a couple of days for people who just want an introduction to fishing. We also have plenty of individuals who go out for the entire season or several weeks at a time.” The rookies are paid for their work and Racine said skippers are eager to show them the ropes. “The skippers that are interested are looking for reliable crew and want to mentor the next generation of resource stewards and skilled fishermen,” she said. “So not only are they training a pool of young people as deck hands, they also are ensuring the life of this industry that they love and is so important to our coastal communities.” Longtime salmon troller Eric Jordan has mentored over 40 young fishermen aboard his vessel, the I Gotta. Out on the water, he teaches them the intricacies of commercial trolling and encourages a strong conservation ethic. He calls the apprenticeship program “a win-win for the crewmembers and the skippers.” “The future of our fisheries is dependent on young fishermen learning to love and care for the fish we harvest and the habitat essential to their well-being,” said Jordan. “Finding crew with some experience is critical for individual businesses and the industry as a whole. Our generation’s legacy will be defined how we, as Alaskan fishermen, rebuilt and enhanced our fisheries, and how we mentored the next generation.” Applicants must be 18 or older to apply and the deadline is Feb. 28. Sign on at www.alfafish.org/apprenticeship. Fish farm fans The push for industrialized offshore fish farms is gaining steam among American lawmakers. Farming fish is banned in Alaska waters, but the Trump administration proposes to put net pens in federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles out. The farms are being touted as a silver bullet to boost seafood production, provide jobs and reduce the nation’s $15 billion seafood trade deficit from importing more than 85 percent of its seafood. Since last June a coalition called Stronger America Through Seafood, or SATS, has swelled from 14 to 21 large companies, including Cargill, Red Lobster, Sysco, Pacific Seafoods and Seattle Fish Company. Currently there is only one offshore farm operating in U.S. waters, a mussel farm called Catalina Sea Ranch six miles off the coast of Los Angeles. At a U.S. Commerce Department hearing in Juneau last September, spokesperson Margaret Henderson said that Alaska’s stance is a sticking point. “We in no way mean to impede a state’s authority to manage their own waters, but when it comes to managing federal waters outside the state line, we think that there’s a balance to be had there, that there’s room for both,” she said. Undercurrent News reported last week that SATS has begun collecting signatures to support legislation to streamline the permitting process for offshore fish farms and plans to submit its petition to Congress on February 6. An earlier effort failed, but the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture Act will be reintroduced soon in the U.S. House and Senate by lawmakers from Mississippi, Florida and Minnesota. At the Alaska hearing, Undersecretary of Commerce Timothy Gallaudet cited climate change in his pitch for the push. “Changes in the environment are affecting fish stocks,” he said. “They are either moving or they’re not thriving and so this aquaculture, done the right way and scientifically based, provides a means for employment of fishermen who are losing some of their gain through these changing conditions.” A group of about 140 small-scale fishermen and fishing groups has formed to fight the effort. At the Juneau hearing, Sam Rabung, new director of Alaska’s commercial fisheries division, also spoke out against offshore fish farms. “I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to fight pretty hard to maintain the state’s opt-out option and maintain the ability to prohibit finfish farming off of Alaska.” Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

US, Canada agree on 2019 halibut harvest limits

American and Canadian halibut fishermen finally have an approved set of catch limits for the 2019 season. With the discord of its last annual meeting hanging in the air, the International Pacific Halibut Commission agreed on a set of total allowable catch limits for Pacific halibut in American and Canadian waters during its meeting from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1. The overall catch limit of 38.61 million pounds is slightly up from the 2018 quota — about 1.4 million pounds more. That’s up from 29.9 million pounds in 2016 and from 31.4 million pounds in 2017. Total removals in 2018, including bycatch in nontarget fisheries, added up to about 38.7 million pounds. By area, the total constant exploitation yield, or TCEY, limits are as follows in millions of pounds: Area 2A (West Coast): 1.65 Area 2B (Canada): 6.83 Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 6.34 Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 13.5 Area 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 2.9 Area 4A (Aleutians/Bering Sea): 1.94 Area 4B (Aleutians/Bering Sea): 1.45 Area 4CDE (Bering Sea): 4 Last year, the commissioners from the U.S. and Canada could not come to an agreement about how to reduce halibut catches in Pacific waters and adjourned their meeting with no agreement. Each individual country handled its catch limits, as long as they were no higher than the 2017 limits the commissioners last agreed on. The commissioners noted multiple times that they needed to work together this year. “America and Canada have been partnering for 100 years,” said commissioner Paul Ryall of Canada at the beginning of the meeting. “Though we did come to an impasse we hope we can work together for a productive future.” The commissioners met about eight times between the last annual meeting and this year’s, Ryall said, with “good” discussions but no agreements in the interim. The combined value to fishermen of the halibut and sablefish fisheries for 2018 was $161 million, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a 22 percent decrease from $208 million in 2017. The average halibut price of $5.35 per pound in 2018 was down from $6.32 in 2017. The increase in the overall catch limit follows a trend of the commission increasing the quotas, despite warnings from the IPHC researchers that the halibut surveys indicate that the stock is decreasing and reductions in the fishery levels are necessary for sustainability. The researchers noted in their survey data that the stock is projected to decline from 2019-22 for all TCEYs set greater than 20 million pounds. The 2019 TCEY is nearly double that. The 2018 setline survey data showed yet another decrease in the stock across its range: 7 percent down in the Gulf of Alaska and 15 percent down in Southeast. However, the commissioners have previously noted doubt about the survey data’s accuracy. The researchers also noted at the 2017 meeting that their conclusions were based on incomplete data and that they were working on a new model to account for current stock dynamics. Former North Pacific Fishery Management Council Executive Director Chris Oliver, the administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service and a U.S. commissioner to the IPHC, thanked the Canadian delegation for its cooperation and said he has gained a deeper understanding of the halibut fishery after working through the year on the IPHC issues. “Based on our inability to reach consensus last year and coming into this meeting based on some of the preliminary meetings we had, I was somewhat fearful, skeptical that we would be able to reach a conclusion in this meeting,” he said. “I was eager to do so, because I feel like if we came out of this meeting with an inability to reach consensus it would be extremely negative to the reputation of this international management body.” He added that in its process of setting catch limits, NMFS reshuffled some of the halibut quota and moved it to Southeast from the other U.S. areas to avoid a significant drop that would have resulted from going directly with the apportionment model. “We opted to move some of the fish from the other U.S. apportionment areas back into 2C to get it where it was last year,” he said. “(For consistency) we felt it was appropriate to move a little fish out of 3A, out of 4B, a small amount of 4C, in order to get area 2C to a level of 6.34 million pounds.” Halibut bycatch, a perennial issue, took center stage at the meeting as well. The commission unanimously approved a recommendation to redefine TCEY to include the bycatch of halibut less than 26 inches long, or U26 bycatch. Nontarget commercial fisheries, notably the commercial trawlers, catch a significant number of halibut as bycatch each year, which managers and fishermen have been trying to figure out how to address. Several people at the IPHC noted work currently under progress at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to manage Bering Sea halibut bycatch by abundance. Heather McCarty of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association urged the IPHC to get involved with the council’s efforts there. “You now have an opportunity to participate in a very meaningful way in what some of us believe is the best way to manage halibut bycatch,” she said. The commissioners rebalanced the allocation as well, with 17.7 percent of the total catch going to Canada and 82.3 percent going to the U.S. Canada’s allocation would be slightly up from 2018, when it was suggested at about 15 percent. The allocation between countries was a big hangup at the last meeting. In a press release issued Feb. 4, Oliver said the 2019 quota still conserves stocks, though it is higher. “While the overall quota for 2019 is a slight increase over 2018, the catch limits agreed to at the meeting reflect a sensible, conservative approach that will secure the future of this iconic and economically important species,” he said. The commission agreed on a halibut season of March 15 to Nov. 14. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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