Davidson tapped as AFN keynote for broadening health care
In the four years since she took the helm at the state’s health agency, Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson has wasted no time at finding and inventing ways to broaden health care access for all Alaskans.
Scarcely was she confirmed by the Legislature as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services before she began the work to implement an expanded Medicaid program, authorized by Gov. Bill Walker against the Legislature’s wishes and later affirmed by the Alaska Supreme Court in 2015. Today, that expansion covers about 44,000 Alaskans, many of them Natives.
It was a continuation of the work she did in her leadership roles at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and the step she identifies as the most significant for Native health in her time as commissioner so far.
“Medicaid Expansion ensures our friends, neighbors, and loved ones get the care they need to live healthy, productive lives,” she wrote in emailed responses to questions. “Medicaid Expansion has brought over $1 billion into our state — most of which are federal dollars. This has been a major boost to our economy and created hundreds of health care jobs throughout Alaska. We know that a healthier Alaska is a safer Alaska, and Medicaid Expansion has played a significant role in solving our state’s opioid epidemic.
“Since 2015, Medicaid expansion has paid for over $80 million in behavioral health services — including treatment for addiction.”
Davidson will deliver the keynote address on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 9:20 a.m. at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. AFN President Julie Kitka said in a press release that Davidson’s work exemplifies the conference’s theme of “Innovation in the Past, Present, Future.”
“We are honored to welcome such an accomplished and forward-thinking Alaska Native leader to set the tone for our annual convention,” Kitka said. “Commissioner Davidson’s work and contributions are themselves great examples of the kind of innovative thinking that inspired this year’s convention theme—Innovation in the Past, Present and Future—and we all look forward to her insights.”
A Yup’ik and enrollee of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, Davidson was born in Bethel. She earned a juris doctorate degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1998 and returned to Alaska to work, first advising Calista Corp. in Anchorage before returning to Bethel to work with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
She focused on health care from then on in, leading Medicaid demonstration projects and establishing infrastructure for telehealth clinics to improve care delivery in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta before moving on to work statewide with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
Cooperation on health care — from the federal government to families — is a major component in its success, she said. One lesson she said she’s learned in her time as commissioner is that no single group has all the answers.
“We all have a role to play in improving the health and wellness of our families and communities. It is so important that we work together as a state to improve the health outcomes of all Alaskans,” she wrote. “(A second lession) is that people will do the most amazing things under the most impossible circumstances for the right reasons — and protecting children and families is always the right reason.”
In her role as commissioner, she’s continued to work on collaborative projects between the state and tribal governments. The DHSS includes nine different divisions, including senior services and family services.
At the 2017 AFN Convention, Davidson, Walker and the leaders of a number of Tribes signed a joint child welfare compact that transfers some responsibilities for the child welfare system in the state to tribal government oversight, with the intent of improving outcomes for Alaska Native children in the state foster system. A year ago, the DHSS held its first department-wide Tribal Consultation, with another scheduled this month, Davidson said.
“These consultations provide an opportunity for interactive engagement between all DHSS divisions and Tribes to identify barriers, break down solos, and make recommendations to the department,” she wrote. “We are also working with our Tribal partners to develop a consultation policy for the department so there is a clear framework to extend these partnerships going forward. There are so many ways the state and Tribes can work together to better serve Alaskans. By increasing communication and collaboration with our Tribal partners, we can improve the health and wellbeing for all Alaskans.”
That Tribal, federal and state collaboration will be a player in the future, she said. The department has already undergone significant cuts amid the state budget crisis — about $91 million since 2015, with 137 jobs deleted, she said — and state budgets continue to tighten, with members of the Legislature specifically targeting the Medicaid program for future budget cuts.
Attempts at significant Medicaid changes are coming from the federal administration as well, with multiple attempts from Congress in the past two years.
As more changes are proposed from the federal government, the department will work with the governor and Alaska’s congressional delegation to identify impacts and try to find ways to innovate to streamline services at home, Davidson said.
“We are no longer doing more with less — we are now doing less with less,” she said. “As we transition into a time of leaner state budgets in the future, finding innovative ways to deliver health and social service programs will be absolutely critical. This includes working with our Tribal and federal partners to streamline our work, relying on one another’s expertise to avoid duplicating efforts, and stretching our public dollars as far as possible. While leaner budgets are a challenge, they also provide the opportunity to build new partnerships to better serve Alaskans and their families.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].