Opinion: Fighting for a healthier, safer Alaska

Addiction is a disease that has plagued our state for decades and ranked us at the top for too many undesirable statistics including domestic violence, suicide, and the spread of infectious disease. Recent news reports have shown yet another troubling result of addiction: rising rates of property crime throughout Alaska. Stories about cars being stolen and homes being robbed have become all-too-common in the newspaper. Many Alaskans are now asking how they can protect themselves and their communities.

While stronger enforcement of drug laws and cracking down on property crime are critical to solving this problem, access to treatment and behavioral health services are equally important. Addiction knows no socioeconomic or cultural boundaries. Each of us probably knows someone in our own family or circle of friends who has struggled with this disease. Just like diabetes requires insulin and cancer requires chemotherapy, addiction requires treatment to get people healthy and back on their feet.

As a part of his Public Safety Action Plan, Gov. Bill Walker obtained $12 million from the legislature this year to fund new substance use disorder treatment programs in Alaska. The Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) will distribute these funds to community organizations to create more detox and treatment beds and to create a 72-hour emergency response center that takes pressure off hospital emergency departments.

While these funds will provide much-needed services to people struggling with addiction, more needs to be done. We know we don’t have enough treatment services in Alaska, and current resources focus on urban-based, crisis-driven services. Eliminating addiction and the troubling crimes that go along with it require preventative and intervention services in communities across our state — including rural Alaska.

Whether we are talking about opioids, alcohol, methamphetamine, or any other drug, we have to get to the root of the problem — why are people self-medicating in the first place and how can we stop them before they start?

Trauma experienced early in life can have lasting impacts on one’s physical and mental health. To address trauma, we need a behavioral health system that meets Alaskans where they are. Our current system has significant gaps that make prevention and early intervention difficult.

Through Senate Bill 74 and Walker’s Public Safety Action Plan, DHSS is working with stakeholders and federal partners to redesign Alaska’s behavioral health system to make more of these prevention and intervention services available at the local level. When we provide culturally-relevant care as close to home as possible, we have better outcomes.

DHSS is in the process of negotiating the terms of its behavioral health reforms with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The department seeks to receive approval to move forward in the next year. While these changes will not occur overnight, our goal is to make lasting improvements to Alaska’s behavioral health system so we can address the disease of addiction before a crime is committed.

Being the victim of any crime leaves you feeling vulnerable and scared. Alaskans have every reason to be concerned about the crime associated with our state’s opioid epidemic. While there is no one solution that will eliminate this problem, we can all work together — the state, local communities, providers, advocacy groups, families and more — to come up with innovative ways to tackle this epidemic.

After all, a healthier Alaska is a safer Alaska. And that is something we can all fight for.


• Valerie Davidson is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.


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