Health Secretary Meets with Tribes

Yesterday (Tuesday), with Alaska’s U.S. senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and several senior federal agency officials, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius took part in a roundtable discussion hosted by Southcentral Foundation, an Alaska Native healthcare organization serving Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and several rural villages.

Southcentral Foundation president and CEO Katherine Gottlieb says she appreciates Murkowski and Begich’s advocacy on behalf of tribal health programs, and that President Obama is listening to tribes. She says his administration has worked to cover indirect costs, which helped support about a hundred SCF jobs:

“Our president is listening. He’s coming, he’s meeting with tribes. He has increased contract support costs. We have benefitted from that contract support cost increase, and have produced many, many jobs. And in the same breath when we didn’t get contract support, that was $5.5 million, that impacted SCF directly.”

Sobelius says she’s visiting Alaska because it’s important to see things firsthand. And what she’s seeing reinforces what she’s heard about Alaska’s high costs, transportation issues, and gaps in even the deployment of broadband used in telemedicine and the effects of not funding indirect costs:

“Contract services not being funded are life and death decisions. If people can’t have their health care delivered, they really are then in desperate shape, so these are very serious issues and ones that the president and administration takes very seriously, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Gottlieb says SCF has transformed the way health services are delivered. For instance, she says customers pick their own primary health care provider, and have easy access to a range of services such as traditional health and massage therapy, as well as education and preventive care. The results she says are a 40% drop in visits for emergency and urgent care; 30% fewer hospital days; a 95% customer satisfaction rate; and improved health, in some areas all at about 63% of the cost of other care providers.

Sebelius asked if the SCF model would translate to other cultures. Gottlieb says yes, as long as care providers replicate the most important step – listening to their customers:

“If you got the check today for where you get services, what would you change. That’s what we asked. Our customer owners, our people said we don’t like this, we like this, we want that, we’d rather have this. Everything they asked for, we changed.”

Senator Begich says he believes the nation would benefit from the SCF model, and from Alaskan programs in prevention, recovery, employment, and Headstart, all of which are under the Secretary’s jurisdiction:

“We think we have some models that she might be able to take back and as we deal with these tough budgets, maybe there’s some ways to take some of our ideas and help save some money and at the same time deliver better care.”

Gottlieb also told Sobelius the federal government has never fully met its obligations in exchange for the vast lands and resources tribes relinquished. Sobelius says the president and administration are working to change that. She also says deployment of U.S. Public Health Services health professionals and National Service volunteers will become more strategic.

Sobelius next travels to Fairbanks, Nenana, and Anatuvuk Pass, a predominantly Nunamiut Eskimo village of 324 people. It’s located in the Brooks Range.

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Joaqlin Estus is a reporter at KNBA in Anchorage.

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