Juneau’s hospital hears from the community as budget crisis threatens service cuts

people sit at a table
Aaron Surma, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Juneau, gives testimony at a Bartlett Regional Hospital meeting on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

As the board for Juneau’s city-owned hospital begins hearing public testimony on services it might cut or reduce, residents say there could be damaging consequences for the community if they’re gone. 

At a public meeting Tuesday night, Leslie Chandler Holzman spoke in support of the Home Health and Hospice services run by Bartlett Regional Hospital. 

“I just have to say — do not give up on this thing,” she said. “The reward to this community is immeasurable.” 

That service and others — like the Rainforest Recovery Center and adult and adolescent crisis services — could be discontinued as the hospital tries to address a major budget crisis. 

This year, the hospital is absorbing a $7.5 million budget deficit by pulling from its savings. But hospital leaders say they can’t do that for much longer. They say that if they don’t find ways to significantly cut costs, the hospital will run out of money within the next three years. 

Hospital Board member Hal Geiger explained the dilemma like this.

“The decisions we have before us, they’re like the decisions we would have if we were gonna drive on a long car trip and we don’t have any gas in the car, and we don’t have any money to buy gas,” he said. 

The services that the board is discussing cutting or reducing are considered “non-core” services, and they’re costing more money than they’re making.

The home health program gives intermittent in-home care for people recovering from an illness or surgery, and hospice is for patients who have a life expectancy of six months or less. Bartlett began offering the services last summer, taking over the role after Catholic Community Services stopped providing it in 2022. 

Those services are expected to lose a combined $1.3 million next fiscal year.

The Rainforest Recovery Center is a substance misuse treatment center the hospital has operated since 2000. It’s expected to lose close to $800,000 next year.

The board says other options could be on the table, like subsidizing the programs with city dollars or handing them over to other providers. But if that doesn’t happen — and soon — cutting the services may be the only option left. 

At the meeting, National Alliance on Mental Illness Juneau Executive Director Aaron Surma said that demand for adult and adolescent crisis services in Juneau is high, and the effects of cutting them would be widespread. 

“You all inherited a financial situation that no individual person here created, but I think you also inherited an obligation to provide that service,” he said.

The crisis center is expected to lose $1.2 million next year. But the hospital only started offering the services last December after the building that houses it, the Aurora Behavioral Health Center, was completed. 

The board says that if the service is cut or moved, they would repurpose the new building to house other programs.

But Surma said he wants the board to make sure the service does remain available – whether that’s with Bartlett or with a different organization that takes it over. 

The meeting Tuesday night was the first of two in-person opportunities for the public to share feedback on what they’d like to see happen. The next meeting is June 10 at the hospital’s campus. Public comments can also be submitted electronically or via mail until June 19. As of Tuesday, the board says they have already received 25 emails offering feedback. 

The board is expected to give a final recommendation on June 25 on how to move forward.

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