Alaska lawmakers weigh proposed health department split

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A proposal from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to split the state Department of Health and Social Services into two agencies will take effect later this year unless lawmakers this month vote to reject the idea. Alaska House and Senate leaders say there may not be the votes to do that.

Reorganization of what is now the state’s largest department has been billed as a way to improve operations and delivery of services. The proposal came through an executive order and rejection of the order would require a joint session and support from 31 of the Legislature’s 60 members.

The Anchorage Daily News reported Tuesday that opponents of the split say the effort has been rushed and that people served by the agency haven’t been adequately consulted. The department’s commissioner has disputed this.

The proposal has received support from medical advisory boards and a group representing hospitals and nursing homes.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent and a leader in the House, said 31 votes “don’t exist in joint session. I think we know that.”

Senate President Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said he did not believe that there is support at this time from Senate members for a joint session.

The administration contends it has the authority to propose the split.

Prior governors considered breaking up the department but never advanced a plan to do so. Dunleavy proposed a split last year but withdrew that plan after his office cited “technical issues” with it.

His revised executive order was introduced in January.

Some legislators and public interest groups view the split as a way to address management concerns at sub-agencies such as the Office of Children’s Services, Alaska Psychiatric Institute and Division of Public Assistance.

Some critics worry about possible service impacts.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, an Anchorage Democrat, said “a slower, more methodical approach to this” is warranted.

Sen. David Wilson, a Wasilla Republican, said he supports the split. He said ideally the Legislature would introduce and pass a “cleanup” bill to fix any problems with wording in the order.

But he and others also have expressed concern that such a bill could be amended to include COVID-19 vaccination issues, causing it to fail.