A bill introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy meant to aid Alaska’s ailing hospitals died in the Alaska House of Representatives Monday after becoming the center of a debate over vaccine mandates.
The House voted Sunday night to include amendments on Senate Bill 3006 that would require hospitals and nursing homes to allow support people to be with patients while they receive care.
But hospital representatives say allowing more people into the hospital during a pandemic would be detrimental to the health and safety of patients, particularly when the bill also includes amendments prohibiting requirements for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Seeing all the anti-mitigation and vaccine measures, and dictating terms of what normally is in the hands of medical professions, dictating terms on how to run a safe facility,” said Jared Kosin, CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, in a phone interview. “It’s such a distraction.”
Kosin told the Empire the bill as it stands would be more detrimental to Alaska’s health care than helpful.
Without the hiring flexibility the bill was originally meant to provide, Alaska’s hospitals would still do their best to provide care, Kosin said.
“We don’t have time and energy to waste on things like this,” Kosin said. “I was on calls today with facilities that are running out of oxygen. We’re getting ready to have conversations about how are we going to ration care, that’s what we’re dealing with in our world. We don’t have time for, to be frank, political theater.”
But members of the House minority stood by their amendments, saying in a meeting with reporters they had heard overwhelming concern from constituents over vaccine mandates. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, said she was concerned to hear Kosin’s statements.
“We’re talking about the right to have someone present when they’re dying,” Vance said. “We have to maintain human dignity or what is the point of safeguarding someone else’s life?”
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said such decisions about who is present in someone’s final moments shouldn’t be left to industry professionals or bureaucrats. Carpenter said there should be civilian oversight of health care as there is for the military.
“Industry has a role, they have a job to do,” Carpenter said. “But industry has to recognize that it isn’t just about science, it has to do with policy. We’re talking about death, and there is a role for policymakers to play.”
Bartlett Regional Hospital CEO Rose Lawhorne told the Empire Monday the bill as amended would have made it more difficult to create a safe environment at the hospital.
“There’s a high degree of balance between rights of patients and being able to provide care in a safe manner,” Lawhorne said. “In trying to protect specific rights (lawmakers) throw up road blocks to providing care in our communities.”
Lawhorne said the hospital board had instructed her to develop a vaccine mandate, and that lawyers and others are researching the best way to do that including exemptions.
Members of the House majority spent Monday morning in caucus and other meetings, trying to discuss how to move forward with the bill. The coalition has only a slight majority and two of its members, Reps. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, voted in favor of the visitation provisions.
In a statement Monday, the majority said the bill would not be brought back to the floor for another vote following the addition of the amendments.
In the Senate
Meanwhile, the Senate debated a spending bill containing an appropriation for this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend. This year’s dividend is set at $1,100 and has its funding split between the state’s general fund and the Statutory Budget Reserve savings account. In the past the SBR has required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to access but a recent court case has called that into question. Dunleavy’s office maintains the three-quarter vote still applies, but lawmakers from both parties and in both bodies have said legal action may be necessary.
The Legislature’s third special session ends at midnight Tuesday and though many lawmakers have long speculated about a fourth, no formal plans are yet in the works. Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said in an email the governor hadn’t made a decision regarding another special session but wants to see what is produced by this session.
Both the House and Senate were scheduled to have floor sessions Monday, but both were delayed to the call of the chair. As of 5 p.m. Monday, the House session was canceled but the Senate was still scheduled.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.