public healthBy Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News

As lawmakers finish off their spending plan for state operations, a wide variety of programs are considering the impacts of budget cuts. One is the state public health center system, where reductions could leave communities without some types of care.

The Southeast Alaska community of Wrangell has been without a full-time public health nurse since the previous staffer left in March.

Fill-ins from other centers are spending a few days there every other week. One is Susan Bergmann, a nurse manager who supervises that center from Ketchikan.

“I’m not recruiting at this point. I have not received permission to do so,” Bergmann said. “They are still waiting for final decisions to be made in the House and Senate with their budget.”

The nursing program faces a 15 to 20 percent reduction in its annual budget of about $30 million.

Chief of Public Health Nursing Linda Worman says that will affect the level of service provided to low-income Alaskans and those without insurance.

“There most likely will be closures this year like there were last year. But I will honestly say it does depend on what the final dollar figure is.”

A smaller budget cut, made last year, caused the 10-nurse Seward Public Health Center to close.

Worman says her agency is working on plans for further reductions, but isn’t ready to identify locations or positions.

She says such decisions are based in part on need, such as communities with high tuberculosis rates.

Bergmann says that’s not much of a problem in Southeast, but it is in parts of Western Alaska.

“They also look at are the community partners able to provide the services that public health provides? In Wrangell, the answer is yes, we have other providers.”

Worman says the main focus of the public health program is on younger Alaskans, though others can still find some help.

“We’re still going to do immunizations. We’re still going to do reproductive health through the life span. We’re gonna make sure that if somebody does call, we’re gonna be able to tell them what services are available in their community if we cannot be their safety-net provider.”

The state has around 190 nursing positions at 22 public health centers. Worman says those jobs make up about 80 percent of her agency’s budget.

“This is an unprecedented reduction. However, we still believe that public health nursing is very valuable for our state. And so we said, what can we do with this? Because we all know what the state budget looks like and it’s not that nursing was targeted in any way.”

Wrangell, Haines, Cordova and Valdez are one-nurse sites with open positions at this time. But Worman says that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll close.