Dunleavy asks Legislature for do-over on public health nursing veto as covid surges

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference on June 30, 2020. (Photo by Governor's Office)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is asking the Legislature to restore $1.25 million in funds for the state’s public health nursing program that he vetoed earlier this year as covid cases are surging.

The request was outlined during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday, where the governor’s administration proposed 34 amendments to the current special session budget that would increase spending by $143 million in mostly federal funds.

“At the time this veto was made just a couple short months ago, the situation with covid response was much different than it was now with the Delta variant,” state budget Director Neil Steininger told the committee. “So that has caused the governor to reconsider that veto action in light of new events.”

Alaska’s Public Health Nursing program has been an important component of the state’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, helping with contact tracing, some testing and data input. Staffing problems with the program have contributed to lags with tracing and the state’s reporting of covid numbers.

In documents for this year’s budget, the covid-19 pandemic combined with staffing issues have forced the program to divert resources from other services such as child exams, WIC visits, tuberculosis screenings and services related to sexually transmitted infections. It notes that even under the governor’s initial budget requests to “anticipate further decline in all non-pandemic-related response service.”

The $1.25 million that was vetoed from the program was added by the Legislature. In his veto, the governor’s administration claimed that the gap could be made up with federal funds and then in an editorial later claimed that no public health nurses would be laid off due to the vetoes. What he didn’t mention was agency has extreme staffing problems and had a 30% vacancy rate when the pandemic started, according to the budget documents.

“In a state leading the nation in syphilis, chlamydia, and tuberculosis, vetoes to public health nursing are truly baffling,” Rep. Andy Josephson wrote in an editorial critical of the governor’s vetoes.

In the Senate Finance Committee hearing, there was little additional discussion about restoring the $1.25 million that the governor vetoed. Legislators asked how much other funding in the requests would restore vetoes, to which Steininger said only the public nursing veto was a wholesale replacement while several other new spending proposals would replace vetoed items with federal funding. A full list of the budget proposals can be found here.

As far as health-related spending, the proposed amendments call for nearly $60 million in spending of federal relief funds to respond and mitigate covid. That includes additional testing, vaccines, expanding lab capacity, additional response and for an an “initiative to address covid-19 among high risk, rural and underserved Alaskans.” Legislators sought clarification on the last point, but there was little to be had at the meeting.

As cases have continued to surge with the highly contagious Delta variant, Dunleavy has continued to refuse to renew the state’s public health disaster declaration that expired in April. In an interview last week, he claimed a disaster declaration wouldn’t help and that the real problem is understaffed hospitals.

“What it is, is we are tired of this whole thing, literally, figuratively, across the board, across this country in the state,” he said.

The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association on Wednesday called on the governor to renew the disaster declaration, with President and CEO Jared Kosin writing in a letter that “Alaska is now at the worst point of the COVID-19 pandemic. Transmission of the Delta variant is rampant, and we are seeing levels of COVID-19 transmission that we have never seen before. … Caregivers are exhausted everywhere, and both hospitals and nursing homes are plagued with severe staffing shortages. Simply put, every hospital bed counts at this point, and we have few left.”

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