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Health care cost fight off to good start

Department of Administration's Becky Hultberg says conversation with state has begun

Posted: July 28, 2012 - 11:07pm

A top state official trying to hold down health care costs says she’s happy to have begun a public discussion on the issue.

But Commissioner Becky Hultberg of the Department of Administration is also challenging those who have questioned the proposals.

Alaska pays about $600 million a year for state employee and retiree health care, a growing amount that threatens to overwhelm the state budget, she said.

She earlier proposed taking some potentially controversial steps such as sending employees south for cheaper care or increasing use of preferred provider networks in an effort to save money.

“We cannot continue to see our health care cost double every decade, we have to do something to bring those costs down,” she said.

Hultberg said she began the discussion she wants to have by meeting with Providence Alaska Medical Center, a hospital for which she once worked and which is not a member of the state’s preferred provider network.

“I thought it was a very productive meeting,” she said.

She said Providence was open to having the conversation, and agreed with her that “we need to have a community dialog about these issues.”

She said she’s only had preliminary discussions with the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association and planned to meet with physicians groups later this year.

“The response from the providers on the hospital side has been very positive,” she said. “I think they recognize that the sustained price increases that we’ve had over the last decade cannot continue in the future.”

She also called some of the criticism the plan has received “inaccurate and speculative.”

The “inaccurate” comment, she said, came from Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who questioned earlier this month whether it would actually be cheaper to send people south given the high cost of travel. Rep. Kerttula was quoted in the Juneau Empire [July 10] asking, “How is sending people out of state for treatment going to solve the problem we have here in Alaska with a lack of providers?”

Hultberg said it would be cheaper.

“There clearly would be savings, and we’ve documented that,” she said.

Hultberg’s proposal did not include specifics for how big travel incentives would be, but she said costs are dramatically lower outside Alaska.

And she called “speculative” a concern from Alaska State Employees Association leader Jim Duncan that at some point an optional travel benefit could become a penalty for failing to travel for cheaper care.

Hultberg called it a “misperception” that the state might eventually compel travel and repeated her statement that any travel would be voluntary.

“We have never entertained any discussions about requiring travel to the Lower 48 for health care,” she said.

“We really believe in giving people a choice in their health care services,” she said.

Hultberg also generally challenged several statements from those concerned about the impact on Alaska hospitals of sending patients outside Alaska.

“We believe in supporting a strong health care sector in our communities, that’s clearly very important,” she said.

“There is going to be a higher level of cost in Alaska than in the Lower 48, that is clear,” she said. “I think the real question is how much should the state be paying over what is usual, customary and reasonable in the regional market.”

Hultberg said that despite some negative reaction to her cost-containment proposals, there has been positive reaction as well.

“I have had a number of unsolicited emails saying ‘thank you for taking this effort on,” she said.

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

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