The Alaska Department of Health And Social Services building in Juneau has no visible signs indicating the department is splitting into two agencies as of Friday. Top officials at the department said many of the changes, both physical and in services, are likely weeks and in some cases months away. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Little sign of big change for DHSS

No commissioner at new department, other Dept. of Health and Social Services changes may take months

There’s nary a sign on the building about the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services splitting into two agencies on Friday and, for people worrying about the impacts, there seems to be little sign of immediate change inside the walls as well.

“In the immediate term it’s a win if there is no change,” said DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum on Monday.

DHSS is splitting into the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services as of July 1 due to an executive order by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. It’s at least on paper the finalizing of a process initiated in January 2021 that encountered considerable resistance from legislators and stakeholders such as foster care and Alaska Native organizations.

[State begins process to split DHSS]

But plenty of aspects of the split remain undone, including the fact there isn’t a commissioner for the new department and as of Monday afternoon no specific timeline for Dunleavy announcing one other than “soon,” according to spokesperson Jeff Turner. New signs on doors and buildings are likely weeks away and other aspects of the transition could take a year or more — including possible legislative action to correct any issues that arise.

“This is not a flip of the switch where things magically become different over 24 hours,” said Sylvan Robb, assistant commissioner for the new Department of Health.

That said, one notable “flip of the switch” change occurred late Monday afternoon with the launch of the two new websites for the separate departments. However, the homepage of the new department and some Department of Health links, including one for reorganization information and resources, weren’t working about an hour afterward.

“We’re doing that early so it’s easy on people come July 1,” Crum said. “We’re doing it today so we can see where the glitches are at.”

Among the many unseen transitions is employees in the field have been issued travel cards for their new departments so they won’t be financially cut off on Friday, Crum said. While he acknowledged plenty of issues that motivated the split won’t vanish when it comes official — and new hiccups are likely after it happens — there is optimism that efforts during the past three months will ensure there are no major problems in terms of service.

“We have done everything possible to make sure this is as successful as possible, not perfect,” he said. “We will have fully functioning, legally operating entities on July 1.”

The department, in a website FAQ, states the split is occurring because “no other department in the state comes close to the volume of personnel, budget or services that DHSS is responsible for. For example, the number of personnel in DHSS equals that of six other state departments combined, and the DHSS budget is equivalent to that of 12 other state departments, the Alaska Court System, the Legislature, and the Office of the Governor combined.”

“When we look at DHSS we’ve got 163 different funding sources,” Crum said. “We’ve got so many issues from birth certificates to health certificates to death certificates, and so many things in between, you’re always reacting.”

After the split, the Department of Health will oversee the Division of Behavioral Health, Division of Health Care Services, Division of Senior and Disabilities Service and public assistance programs such as Medicaid, which is one of the largest items in the state budget. The Department of Family and Community Services will oversee foster care, juvenile justice, Alaska Pioneer Homes and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

Among the concerns raised during two years of legislative hearings and other debate are requiring children’s and family programs to deal with two departments instead of one, possible changes to the implementation of a state-tribal compact giving tribes more responsibility for child welfare and allowing the outsourcing of children’s services jobs.

Crum said some of those issues, such as the compact, are resolved in Dunleavy’s executive order, and department officials have been working with stakeholders extensively in recent months to determine what concerns remain and how to resolve them. He said he expects that to continue on a large scale during the coming months, including compiling a list of changes for the Alaska Legislature to consider if necessary.

For many stakeholders as well as DHSS employees the prevailing mentality just before the split seems to be wait-and-see.

“Concern is probably a stronger word than I would use,” said Amy Simonds Taylor, executive director of Juneau Youth Services. “We will be paying close attention.”

Among the concerns when the split was being considered is separating the state’s interaction with therapeutic foster care and other services the same children may require, Taylor said. She said the split is also occurring at a time of concern regarding the level and quality foster care assistance services in general.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of the same people,” she said, referring to who her agency will be interacting with. “We will be paying attention during the next six to eight months in particular.”

The Legislature authorized 13 new positions and 10 reclassified positions for the two departments, but fully staffing the offices is another step likely to take some time because there are currently about 150 job vacancies throughout DHSS, Robb said.

“We’re experiencing the same problems as both the private and public sectors throughout the state and throughout the country,” she said. “We’re filling positions a little more slowly. Hiring people takes time, so obviously splitting the department has been a quantity of additional work.”

The split is also occurring at a time of the year when department officials have to close out the budget for the fiscal year and deal with plenty of other administrative responsibilities, said Marian Sweet, assistant commissioner for the new Department of Family and Community Services. But she isn’t worried about what her day-to-day workload might look like come Friday.

“Actually this is exciting,” she said. “I think my team is excited. It has been a very short, but a very long road at the same time. I think everybody is looking forward to July 1 in terms of ‘yes it’s here,’ but I think it’s still going to be very much status quo.”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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