Tony Haugen elected to chair NSHC board of directors
By Anna Lionas
The Norton Sound Heath Corporation Board of Directors gathered in Nome for the three-day meeting from September 19 to the 21.
The meeting began with a moment of silence for Stan Andersen, a longtime board representative for the City of Nome.
“He’s gonna be very much missed in our lives here. He did so much to help not only Nome but the surrounding region,” Native Village of Savoonga board representative Preston Rookok said.
Later on, the Board voted to rename the vocational scholarship he helped implement through NSHC after him, now the Stan Andersen Vocational Scholarship.
During a telephonic public comments period, callers expressed their frustration with many aspects of traveling to Nome and Anchorage to receive treatment.
“Some elders are waiting eight hours or more for housing in Nome,” one caller said. “Another issue I have is going to Anchorage the food is very high priced and some people finish their meal plan before the day is over.”
CEO of NSHC Angie Gorn responded to this caller saying she recently attended an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium travel care summit and learned about many issues going on with healthcare travel and are working to improve them for NSHC patients.
Gorn said NSHC is currently renovating the former Behavioral Health Services building into efficiency style patient housing to provide short-term housing for those traveling to Nome for treatment. “The board knows we need more housing, so we do have plans to work on that in the future,” Gorn said.
Another comment came from a Savoonga tribal member who was upset by the recent treatment their family member received by a physician assistant at their clinic. The caller claimed the staff member spoke to the patient and their parent in a disrespectful manner and disregarded the patient’s claims of pain, saying they were being dramatic.
“They [village clinic staff] need cultural sensitivity training, they can’t be in a position like this serving our people and making comments, being rude and disrespectful to our people,” the caller said.
NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson responded to the comment saying he will investigate the issue and get back with the families affected. He explained all staff going into the villages does receive cultural sensitivity training.
“I agree with you the interaction was not appropriate and I will make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Dr. Peterson said.
The Native Village of Teller has a new primary board member, Sara Akluk.
Elections took place for board positions for the upcoming year, with notable changes.
Tony Haugen of Unalakleet was elected as the new chair of the board, replacing Preston Rookok of Savoonga, who’s been board chair since 2019.
“Thank you for your support and confidence in me, I along with the rest of the executive staff will work hard to represent this board,” Haugen said.
Heather Payenna, representative of the King Island Community, was voted to serve as vice chair. Rookok was elected second chair. The rest of the board positions were voted in as follows:
Secretary: Berda Willson, Native Village of Council; Treasurer: Elizabeth Johnson, Village of Solomon; Asst. Treasurer/Secretary: Angela Menadelook-Kakaruk, Native Village of Mary’s Igloo; Executive Committee Member #1: Joanne Keyes, Native Village of Wales; Executive Committee Member #2: Charlie Brown, Chinik Eskimo Community; Executive Committee Member #3: Kevin Bahnke, Nome Eskimo Community.
Gorn, in the CEO report to the board, reported success with a new initiative to hire 29 high school students in the region over the summer. The program is open to students 16 or older. They have the opportunity to work on the weekends during the school year and at different break times throughout the year.
After two attempts to visit Diomede’s new clinic were pushed back due to weather, the board and Gorn were able to celebrate the opening of the 2,200-square-foot building last Friday, September 22.
Infant deliveries are up this year as well as mammograms, Gorn said. Patient care volumes have gone down including COVID swabbing and acute care admissions.
Gorn said she’s heard from communities to organize more career and health fairs in the villages and in response, NSHC is setting up one in every village over the next year.
Financially things are going very well, Gorn said. The proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2024 is $250 million.
Net patient service revenue is over the projected amount and significant investment income has been earned this year, according to Gorn.
Later in the meeting, Tammy Head, portfolio manager from UBS, a financial services company, gave her report on NSHC’s investments. As of July, NSHC has over $250 million invested, she said. With over $193 million in short term investments, NSHC has been very successful with gaining interest over the past few months, Head explained. NSHC is projected to earn over $6 million in interest alone in 2023; $190 million of the investment is in treasuries protected by the U.S. government. Head explained to the board that is the safest basis for an investment. NSHC also has money invested in Black Rock which is protected by treasuries and investments in corporate debt. The board accepted the report, seemingly pleased with NSHC’s financial investments.
Gorn said one goal for the upcoming year is to fill vacancies of nurses and health aide positions.
“I always enjoy the fall report because we’re so close to the end of the year, it’s a fun exercise to look at the volumes and all the programs and support we’ve provided throughout the year,” Gorn said.
Matt Emrick, director of engineering and capital projects at NSHC, presented on capital projects. Considering the severe housing shortage in Nome, NSHC makes plans for housing developments and, to that end, has purchased property to the west of the hospital. “We could potentially put as many as eight new units on that property,” Emrick said. “So far we’ve requested and received $10 million from the board to perform site and utility work for four 20-plex units.”
The current Quyanna Care Center expansion of 15 more beds has made progress with the pilings all installed, Emrick said. Moving to the next stage, the final cost estimate has been negotiated at $10.9 million for the rest of the project.
Emrick expanded on the BHS building renovation. There will be seven units on the first floor, nine on the second set up for extended patient stay. The building will include an accessible laundry facility. The building is in the middle of construction with an expected completion date of April 2024.
Progress on projects in the village include near completion of the Shishmaref clinic renovation. Once complete in Shishmaref, the construction team will move onto Koyuk to complete the staff housing project there.
President and CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Valerie Nurr’araluk Davidson delivered a report to the board. In a recent announcement Indian Health Service is giving $440 million to Alaska through a recent infrastructure bill to improve sanitation infrastructure. This funding will include first piped water and sewer to Wales and Stebbins. Other communities will also be receiving upgrades to their sanitation infrastructure as needed.
Davidson said ANTHC had financial challenges over the past year. “We have not kept the pace with meeting capital equipment needs, now we must make up for 10 years of lost investments,” Davidson said. This means they will intentionally be operating at a loss over the next few years to perform projects to keep everything up to date. By 2025 ANTHC intends to break even or have a small positive income margin, according to Davidson.
Medicaid redeterminations are an annual process looking at a person’s income and other factors to confirm that those enrolled in Medicaid are still eligible for the benefits. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, redeterminations were halted, now they have started again and there has been a peak in disenrollment, especially in Alaska.
“8,000 Alaskans are potentially not eligible for Medicaid in September,” Davidson said. Many people don’t understand that they need to or how to fill out the form. Davidson said ANTHC is sending out post cards informing people of the importance of sending out the forms and how they can contact ANTHC for help. “We’re working double time to ensure as many people who are enrolled in Medicaid continue to be enrolled,” Davidson said.
Alaska Native Medical Center Administrator Alan Vierling spoke to the board about travel updates. “Anchorage gets over 500,000 calls related to travel every year,” Vierling said. “Rescheduling is an issue, we want to make calls and communications easier surrounding travel.”
Housing, weather challenges, wait times are all issues being worked on to make travel for treatment easier, Vierling said.
Rosemary Otton, board representative for Koyuk, commented there have been many occurrences of cab drivers being rude to patients traveling in Anchorage about vouchers. Vierling responded saying that was something to take up with the companies as they we’re getting paid from the government which often take a while to reimburse drivers. This isn’t an excuse for their behavior but can explain why they’re acting that way, it’s best to report it to the company, Vierling said.
The board approved a proposal to fund the creation of basketball courts in the five communities currently without one. The board approved $100,000 each for Diomede, Golovin, Nome, Shaktoolik and Wales to create basketball courts. “I think we can all attest basketball is a favored activity in our region,” Gorn said. “The more outdoor activities we can promote as a health organization the better.”
The board then considered a proposal that would allow administration to put a bid on a four-plex in Unalakleet that would potentially serve as housing for clinic employees. After looking at the project proposal and considering that the land would be leased from the City of Unalakleet, the board voted that NSHC makes an offer on the property.
A resolution to honor the late Stan Andersen initially included the renaming of the Nome Operational Building after him and adding his name to the vocational scholarship. Some board members voiced their opposition to naming a building after a person who wasn’t a tribal member. The board went into an executive session where they amended the resolution, still honoring Andersen and everything he did for the board and NSHC, naming only the vocational scholarship after him.
The board heard a presentation from Nome Community Center Executive Director Butch Palmero and Nome Emergency Shelter Team, or NEST, Coordinator Janice Mixsooke. The NSHC board approved another yearly donation of $65,000 to NEST.
The NSHC board meeting concluded with many kind words about Stan Andersen and his felt absence at this meeting. Board members congratulated each other for the good work and decision making done over the course of the three-day meeting.
“This was a really good meeting. With all the debate we have on everything I think it’s good and healthy. We all have a fiduciary duty to this corporation, but we make sacrifices coming here because of what’s going on at home,” Charlie Brown said.
“We can’t forget the people in the background, there’s so many staff involved helping make this corporation a success.”