Within hours of the announcement that the Alaska Psychiatric Institute is no longer facing closure by the federal agencies that watch over it, the co-chairs of the House Health and Social Services Committee lashed at the governor today for not doing enough to improve conditions at the institution, and criticized him for exploring privatization of the formerly troubled facility.
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, who last week spoke at a rally in Anchorage to recall the governor, said she welcomed the recertification of API by the federal agencies.
But Spohnholz qualified her acknowledgement of the recertification:
“However, API is still barely operating above 50 percent capacity, and the adolescent unit is still not open. The potential privatization of the hospital is making it difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff. If the administration is serious about getting the hospital back to full capacity, they should take privatization off the table and aggressively recruit to fill funded but vacant positions at API,” Spohnholz said.
The Alaska State Employee Association, the union for state workers, has opposed privatization and is suing the Dunleavy Administration over the contract with Wellpath, the private company that has helped stabilize the institution. ASEA’s political action committee, ASEA/AFSCME Local 52 PAC, is a major donor to Spohnholz’ campaigns, giving her the maximum allowed by law in 2018 and 2017.
Co-chair of the HSS Committee Tiffany Zulkosky was similarly critical of the news regarding API’s recertification:
“Over multiple hearings in 2018 and early 2019 about the status of API, we heard overwhelmingly from patient advocates and healthcare partners across the state about the essential role of this institution in meeting the behavioral health needs of Alaskans. We also heard from employees and stakeholder groups who expressed concerns in ensuring those who care for our most vulnerable Alaskans are also safe and protected. For these and many other reasons, in FY19 the Legislature increased staffing and operating resources for API.
“While I join colleagues in sharing my appreciation for the good news that API returns to good standing with its accrediting bodies, it is vital the Department of Health and Social Services continue to prioritize increasing capacity for all units of Alaska’s sole psychiatric hospital. We should not lose focus on patient and staff safety by wasting resources on feasibility studies that have shown that privatization does not save the state money or improve operating outcomes.”
Zulkosky also accepted the maximum donation to her campaign by the ASEA-ASFCME Local 52 Political Action Committee. She is the vice president of communications for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which also has a large behavioral health footprint in her Bethel region.
Both Spohnholz and Zulkosky this winter voted against the confirmation of Commissioner Adam Crum, who is now in charge of the Department of Health and Social Services, and is in charge of bringing the Alaska Psychiatric Institute back to full capacity after its near collapse under former Gov. Bill Walker and former Commissioner and Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson.
The two House critics never uttered a word about API while it spiraled into chaos under Walker and Davidson, with nurses being injured, patients with broken bones, and a staff that was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. API was widely known as the worst psychiatric hospital in the nation during the Walker era.
Spohnholz is rumored to be interested in running for Anchorage mayor and has been increasing her visibility at every opportunity. She led an inquisition against retired Judge Karl Johnstone during confirmation hearings for the Board of Fish, accusing him of behavior for which she offered no supporting evidence.