Update: Lawmakers stop working on bill to aid Alaska hospitals facing COVID-19 surge

Rep. Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage, speaks to Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, before a floor session on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire via AP, Pool)

Work stopped on Monday on a bill requested by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to ease the burden on hospitals from the COVID-19 surge. The bill became caught up in a dispute over requiring all hospitals to allow any patients to bring a person who supports them during any treatment.

Hospitals have put some restrictions on visitors during periods of the pandemic when they were concerned about stopping the spread of COVID-19 among their patients and staff.

But supporters of the amendment said the restrictions have done more harm than good.

Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance proposed the amendment. She said legislators have heard from family members and constituents about having to go into a health care facility for a surgery and procedure.

“And they have been unable to have someone with them during their time of need,” she said. “And we have heard tragic stories of people who have died alone.”

But opponents said that with the amendment, a bill intended to help hospitals would instead make things worse for them.

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said the amendment undermined health care providers’ ability to provide for patient safety during a very uncertain time. She works as a health care executive.

“Providing a broad-brush policy that doesn’t protect a facility’s right or ability to set their own policies is just putting patients in a potentially dangerous situation,” she said.

The bill had a rocky path in the Senate as well. Senators added provisions supported by opponents of vaccine mandates.

This led hospital leaders and state medical experts to raise concerns at a House Health and Social Services Committee meeting on Saturday.

The committee amended the bill to remove the provisions related to vaccines that the Senate had added.

House members opposed to vaccine mandates planned to try to amend the bill again to add these provisions before the floor debate ended.

The Legislature also is considering a bill to fund permanent fund dividends this year.

This story was updated on Monday to reflect that work on the bill has ended.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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