Tribal groups oppose state split of social services department

JUNEAU (AP) - A proposal to split the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services into two organizations has been criticized by health care workers, social service organizations and tribal governments.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the reorganization plan last month, saying the department had become too large and its administration too burdensome to operate as a single entity, the Juneau Empire reported Jan. 14.

Dunleavy issued an executive order to establish the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services.

The order will be submitted in the legislative session and must be approved by a majority vote in a joint session of the Legislature to go into effect.

Richard Chalyee Eesh Peterson, president of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, expressed concern the reorganization would complicate providing services for child welfare programs, particularly because the majority of children under state care are Alaska Native.

During testimony Jan. 13 to the state House Health and Social Services Committee, Peterson said Tlingit and Haida traditionally partnered with the state in social services administration. “It is hard to discuss the bifurcation of DHSS without talking about negative impacts,” Peterson said.

The state and certain tribal governments reached a 2017 agreement to work together toward better child welfare programs, but Peterson said there was no outreach from the state to Tlingit and Haida, which represents about 32,000 tribal citizens.

Health department spokesperson Clinton Bennett said in an email Jan. 13 that the reorganization plan fulfills the conditions of the 2017 agreement.

“There is no substantive change or impact to the compact with the departmental split,” Bennett said. “All rights and responsibilities as outlined in the Compact remain unchanged.”

Tanana Chiefs Conference Chairman P.J. Simon said the organization was willing to work with the administration on an alternative to reduce bureaucracy, but the current proposal would negatively affect social services.

The proposed split would produce “worse outcomes than the status quo,” Simon said.


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