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Local legislators concerned about health care cost containment

Cost cutting efforts could hurt hospitals, patients, Juneau lawmakers say

Posted: July 9, 2012 - 11:01pm

Members of the Juneau legislative delegation are raising questions about some of the impacts of a new state proposal to cut the state government’s soaring medical bills, while saying they understand the need to contain costs.

The Parnell administration said it is “actively exploring” such cost cutting measures as sending state employees and retirees to the Lower 48 for cheaper treatment than they can get in Alaska.

The state Department of Administration says even with the state picking up more travel costs there could be savings to be had.

“How is sending people out of state for treatment going to solve the problem we have here in Alaska with a lack of providers?” asked Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

“I think it sounds crazy,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who worried about its impact on Bartlett Regional Hospital and other Alaska hospitals.

But Egan also said he appreciated the challenge facing the state in trying hold down costs.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, is in Virginia at an educational seminar and unavailable for comment.

Bartlett has said it hopes the state would discuss any changes before they’re made.

The officials, such as Commissioner Becky Hultberg of the Department of Administration said the continued escalation of medical bills threatens state finances. Her department pays about $600 million a year in medical bills, and finds those outside Alaska to be significantly lower.

Hultberg said she’s raised those concerns with the Alaska Hospitals and Nursing Home Association. Karen Perdue, the group’s executive director. was unavailable for comment Friday and Monday.

Kerttula said some Alaskans will always have to leave the state to be treated by specialists, but she’d prefer that they be able to be treated locally.

“We’ve always tried hard to build up a good, solid medical base in Alaska, she said.

“That’s the goal of the WWAMI program, to bring medical professionals home to Alaska so patients don’t have to travel so far,” she said.

The WWAMI program is a joint effort by the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho to provide medical training to physicians and increase their numbers in underserved areas.

Kerttula also said she’s concerned about asking retirees or the elderly to travel for care.

Hultberg said the proposal, if implemented, would be optional with incentives such as plane tickets, hotels and other costs covered by the state as an incentive to travel to cheaper care.

That already sometimes happens for specialties not available in Alaska, but only plane tickets for the patient are covered.

And Kerttula questioned whether it would actually be cheaper.

Traveling can be incredibly expensive with hotels, cabs and food, she said.

“If they’re going to pay that kind of money it seems to me that they should be working with some of the local providers to improves services here,” she said.

State officials have also discussed a stepped-up effort to use preferred provider networks to save money, and possibly improve care as well.

That might work in larger cities, but in much of Alaska there are few treatment options.

“I don’t know how that’s going to work when there’s only one hospital in town,” he said.

State officials say they are not proposing changes yet, but they’re currently drafting new requirements for a third-party administrator for state health claims, and any new incentives or penalties would likely be included in that new set of rules.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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