Gov. Dunleavy withdraws order to split Alaska’s health and social services into separate departments

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference on COVID-19 in Anchorage, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum spoke remotely and appeared on a TV screen to the governor’s right. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has withdrawn the executive order that would have split the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Dunleavy sent a one-sentence letter to Senate President Peter Micciche and House Speaker Louise Stutes on Thursday morning withdrawing the executive order.

Members of the Alaska House of Representatives had prepared a resolution that would have blocked the order, which would have led to two departments: a Department of Health and a Department of Family Services.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and not a lot of evidence or clarification for how this reorganization would work on the ground for Alaskans who are utilizing the services,” said Bethel Democratic Representative Tiffany Zulkosky.

Zulkosky noted tribal organizations and other stakeholders raised concerns that they weren’t included in planning for the split before Dunleavy announced it.

In December, Dunleavy and Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said the department was too large and that splitting it would improve services.

Tribal organizations, advocates for foster children and the largest union for state workers had expressed concern about the plan. And a lawyer for the Legislature said portions of the executive order appeared to conflict with state law and faced potential legal challenges.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder said she’s interested in hearing more ideas from the administration on potential changes to the Department of Health and Social Services. But she said the executive order was “a bit premature,” and that more time would have allowed the state to address legal and budget questions, and to engage stakeholders regarding the effect it would have on state programs.

“It is our biggest department. It has a very large budget,” Snyder said. “And, yes, there may be value in having smaller units to focus in.”

Wasilla Republican Representative Cathy Tilton says she hoped the executive order would have led to lower state spending.

“I think that some of the ideas for the reasoning behind breaking the department into two departments might have had some merit. But I can also understand that we are a less-government-is-better [party], and so I will look forward to seeing what the governor and the administration may come up with in the future.”

A joint session would have met to consider the executive order, and a simple majority of 31 combined senators and House members would have been able to block it.

This story has been updated to include lawmakers’ comments.