A big thanks to Senators Bettye Davis and Hollis French! This year we teamed up with them on our foster care and Medicare legislation. We filed our version on the House side, and they worked hard with us agreeing to file parallel pieces of legislation on the Senate side. Senator Davis has been a leader on children’s issues for a long time, and Senator French has emerged as a leader on getting more Alaskans health coverage. Oh. And thanks to my summer aide, and Facing Foster Care in Alaska Coordinator Amanda Metivier, for writing much of the foster care legislation; and to my aide Rose Foley for working hand in hand with me on this.
Today the Senate versions of these bills passed the Senate Floor. They now come to the House for consideration. And as an obligatory aside – I was gratified at the turnout this week for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. He was sadly assassinated on a trip to Memphis to speak on behalf of sanitation workers, who were fighting for their rights to freely organize. The event this week was organized by Alaskans who are vigilantly making sure Alaska workers do better than those in Wisconsin, where the Governor is working to strip thousands of workers of their rights to organize. Governor.
Rep. Gara addresses a crowd working hard to protect the right to organize on April 4, 2011.
The Medicare bill has been a project we started three years ago. Basically, Medicare pays primary care providers far too little, and many primary care and other providers lose money under the Medicare rate structure. As a result, in Anchorage, many primary care providers refuse to take in new Medicare patients. Our office organized hearings, wrote the federal government (which said our efforts to supplement the Medicare payment with state funds violated Federal Medicare law), worked with them to find a solution, and ultimately worked with Senator Begich last year to achieve a potential solution.
Senator Begich acted on our concerns and wrote an amendment into the 2010 Affordable Health Care bill. The legislation Senator French and I filed used that authorization to establish a grant system that would work as follows. While we are limited by the federal language, it allows us to provide competitive grants to those primary care providers who will treat the newest senior patients for the least funds. Kudos to Senator French for getting his version through the Senate.
. . . . And The Foster Care Victory
Stability and Opportunity for Foster Youth: HB 33 – As you know, we have remained active in our work to improve the lives of Alaska’s 2,000 foster youth. Last year we passed major reforms, and this year we, with Senator Bettye Davis, filed legislation to fix a few more problems in the system. We bit off what we thought we could get through the Legislature.
As I’m running around like crazy these last few days of session, I paste in the sponsor statement on that bill below. It’s what Senator Davis passed today. . .
Rep. Gara, Sen. Ellis, Sen. French, Sen. Wielechowski, Rep. Peterson and Amanda Metivier at a Foster Care Conference.
House Bill 33 aims to make a few modest fixes to the current rules used by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) to provide opportunity for success to our 2,000 foster youth. The Legislature came together to make significant changes in this regard last year. This legislation seeks to fill a few gaps, in a way we believe will cost very little. We have made two minor changes in the original bill, one to comply with federal law, and one because a former provision was unnecessary.
Presumption to Keep Siblings Together Instead of Separating Them: Currently there is no statutory preference to keep siblings together when they go into care. This results in the all too frequent break-up of siblings into different foster homes. HB 33 requires a presumption that siblings be placed in the same home when possible and when such a placement is in the siblings’ best interests. To make sure social workers comply with this presumption, this bill requires the regional director to sign off when siblings are separated, so we know each such decision receives the attention that’s justified before siblings are separated.
Foster Home Licensing Variance: In order for a home to be licensed by the State of Alaska as a foster home, it must comply with numerous building code requirements. Many homes in rural areas do not meet these stringent requirements, so youth are removed from their community even when there are placement options available. HB 33 would allow social workers to grant a variance or waiver from the construction requirement in instances when a home is “otherwise a safe environment”, is consistent with construction in the community, and is a preferable placement for the child.
Streamlining Application Process for Foster Parents: This legislation requires that paperwork for foster parents be streamlined. Anecdotally, many of our offices have heard from prospective foster parents that the paperwork to become a foster parent is more cumbersome than necessary.
Continue to Seek a Permanent Home for Foster Youth: The ultimate goal in foster care is to place a child in a good, permanent home, either through adoption, guardianship or reunification with the child’s natural parent. OCS can take a child off this track under the APPLA process (“Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement”). We believe, and the OCS director recently agreed in a newsletter, that this process is overused. Absent compelling reasons, OCS should always look for a permanent placement for children. This is not only a problem in Alaska, but occurs in other states. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and the federal working group on foster care have proposed federal language to limit the use of APPLA to compelling circumstances, and HB 33 incorporates his proposal.
Finally, thanks to Assistant Attorney General Jan Rutherdale and OCS Deputy Director Tracy Spartz Campbell for all their help to keep the wording of the foster care legislation as effective as possible.
As always, let us know if we can help. OK, back to the frenzy.