Public testimony from both those for and against the road lasted around two hours at Monday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)Anchorage’s Planning and Zoning Commission last night [Monday] voted unanimously to move forward with the Northern Access Project.Download AudioThe controversial road would connect Elmore Road and Bragaw Street through the city’s U-Med district. But it needs to clear several more hurdles before it’s built.Despite spirited protests from opponents of the project outside of the assembly chambers, lasting until the final minutes before the meeting, Anchorage’s Planning and Zoning Commission opted to approve the road’s proposed route, cutting between the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University campuses.“All in favor of the Walker motion, please raise their hand. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” Board Chair Jim Fergusson said. “That motion carries.”Two members were absent from the vote.The nine members of the Planning and Zoning Commission are appointed by the mayor. Commissioners help write policies and ordinances and make recommendations to the Assembly relating to land use planning within the Municipality.The current board was appointed by former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.The approval comes after the municipal planning division released a memo last week, recommending the road go back to the drawing board. As part of the vote, the commission addressed two of the report’s major concerns.Shannon McCarthy is a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. She says one of the changes addresses existing trails in the area.“One was to make sure that the trail system, the winter tail system, is hooked up and continuous…a loop as it exists today,” she said.The other amendment adds a buffer between the sidewalk and the road.Opponents of the Northern Access Project rally outside of the Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)It’s unclear how the changes will impact the project’s budget, which is limited to $20 million.Early in the meeting commission members were working with an older bridge design, that didn’t include a second pedestrian overpass on the southern end of the road.Chris Schutte, the director of economic and community development for the Municipality of Anchorage, explains what happened.“The applicant said, ‘well, since we submitted it, we’ve kept designing and the bridge has been added back in,’” Schutte said. “And I think that was an area where there was some miscommunication, or perhaps misunderstanding, because the planning and zoning commission, as well as staff, were operating off of a design submission that did not include that.”Though this design was approved with caveats, the process isn’t over. From here, it still needs approval from the Urban Design Commission, then the Anchorage Assembly. After that comes the permitting process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.Schutte says Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz intends to delve further into the project.“The larger issue of whether or not this road should be built is still something that the mayor would like a chance to work through,” Schutte said.And a big part of that process will be gathering people on both sides of the issue to see if a reasonable compromise can be reached.So far, the two sides have been been widely divided.Surrounding community councils and many area residents have been long-opposed to the project.Among the road’s opponents is Alice Knapp, a 28-year resident of the area.“When they had the preliminary plans for this road, they said that they would provide bike trail access and bike lanes, and now they can’t afford that, and so now they’ve cut it back to a streamlined road, and it doesn’t have those amenities,” Knapp said. “And if you’re not gonna do it right, let’s not do it until we can do it right – if that is necessary.”On the other side, advocates for the road say it’s necessary.Mary K. Hughes is a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. She says improved access to the U-Med District is vital, largely because of the development and growth the area has seen.“It has burgeoned with productivity. Lots of square footage added. Lots of employees, patients, students,” Hughes said. “And, I mean, there’s about a quarter, probably, of the working population in addition to the people who are served that go in and out of the U-Med district and it needs to be treated accordingly.”The road plans to use University lands as a right-of-way to connect Elmore Road and Bragaw Street.If all approvals and permits are awarded, construction on the project could begin as soon as next spring.
State Highlights: Fort Worth To Move Retirees Into Medicare Advantage Plans A selection of health policy stories from Texas, California, Maryland, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois and Oklahoma.Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Fort Worth To Move Medicare-Eligible Retirees Into Medicare Advantage PlansCity Council members gave administrators the go-ahead Friday to move the city’s 1,500 Medicare-eligible retirees out of a self-insured health plan and into Medicare Advantage in January. The move could save the city $2 million in claims costs next year and more than $5 million by 2023, the city staff estimates. But retirees are skeptical (Nishimura, 8/17).California Healthline: Process Begins For Medi-Cal Provider CutsThe Department of Health Care Services this week outlined its plan to implement a state-ordered 10 percent cut to Medi-Cal providers’ reimbursement rates. It will begin Sept. 5, starting with medical transportation and dental providers. The reimbursement rate for durable medical goods will drop starting Oct. 24 and the bulk of the cuts — to physicians, pharmacists and clinics — will begin Jan. 9, 2014, according to a document posted on the DHCS website on Wednesday (Gorn, 8/16).Los Angeles Times: Patient-Interpreter Bill Aims To Overcome Language BarriersAccording to a 2012 study prepared for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, pediatric patients with limited-English-proficient families who speak Spanish “have a much greater risk for serious medical events during hospitalizations than patients whose families are English-proficient” … [A bill that would make a statewide medical-interpretation program available to Medi-Cal patients] would require the state Department of Health Care Services to apply for federal money that would pay for a certified medical-interpreter program. Such a program is needed, supporters say, to prepare hospitals for the millions of limited-English speakers expected to use healthcare services over the next few years (Kumeh, 8/18).The Washington Post: Pr. George’s Mental Health Court Aims To Treat, Rather Than Jail, DefendantsMore than half of all inmates in U.S. jails and prisons — more than 1.2 million people — reported symptoms of mental illness, according to a 2006 federal study, the most recent national study available. … State and local court systems are adjusting to this reality, with about 300 jurisdictions setting up specialized dockets for judges who use the power of the legal system to impose mental health treatment on some of society’s most troubled residents. They are people charged with assault, theft, arson, trespassing, harassment, stalking and other crimes short of homicide (McCrummen, 8/17).Los Angeles Times: California Discourages Needy From Signing Up For Food StampsLiberal California discourages eligible people from signing up for food stamps at rates conservative activists elsewhere envy. Only about half of the Californians who qualify for help get it. That stands in contrast to other states, including some deeply Republican ones, that enroll 80 percent to 90 percent of those with incomes low enough to qualify. That public policy paradox — one of the country’s most liberal states is the stingiest on one of the nation’s biggest benefit programs — has several causes, some intentional, some not. It also has two clear consequences: Millions of Californians don’t get help, and the state leaves hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money on the table (Halper, 8/17).The New York Times: Firefighters’ Survivor Benefits Value Some Lives Over OthersIn life, firefighters from disparate states and backgrounds work side by side, fighting the same blazes on the same terrain. But in death, families say, they are sifted into different categories based on their official employment status. Whether they were full time or part time and whether they were employed by local, state or federal governments or private contractors can make a difference amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, providing some families with a financial lifeline from the government and others with barely enough to pay for a funeral (Healy, 8/18).Baltimore Sun: Some Hospital CEOs Get Bigger Compensation PackagesMany Maryland hospital and health system CEOs received pay increases in recent years even as they complained of shrinking profit margins and warned of cutbacks unless they could increase the rates they charge. Eleven executives earning seven-figure compensation packages including salary, bonus, retirement and other pay saw their total pay rise from as little as 0.13 percent to as much as 308 percent in the fiscal year that ended in 2012, according to tax filings. Another executive earning more than $1 million saw a pay cut (Walker, 8/18).The Associated Press: Wis. To Claim Marital Property For Medicaid DebtsProvisions buried in the new Wisconsin budget dramatically expanded the state’s ability to claim dead couples’ joint property, such as Green Bay Packers tickets or the family farm, to recoup Medicaid expenses — even if the assets are protected in trusts. The language is designed to help the state recover Medicaid money spent on a number of long-term care programs, most notably Family Care, which helps keep disabled and elderly people out of costly nursing homes (Richmond, 8/18).The Associated Press: Ill. Lawmaker Wants Care For Low-Income Stroke PatientsLow-income stroke patients on Medicaid in Illinois are offered just four sessions with a rehabilitation specialist, far too little therapy to allow them to make a strong recovery, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said in calling for a better standard of care. The Republican from Highland Park, who suffered a stroke in January 2012, told the (Springfield) State Journal-Register in an interview that he’s working on legislation to change that and to promote what he calls “the stroke agenda (8/17).The Associated Press: Oklahoma Pilot Program Seeks To Curb Health Costs; Will Involve 15K EmployeesA $3.8 million pilot program is to start on Jan. 1 to see if it can lower health care costs for 15,000 Oklahoma state employees and their families. The program by MedEncentive was authorized in the 2011 legislative session and will be open to some workers taking part in the HealthChoice program. If the MedEncentive test can bring down costs, its methods could be spread to all 125,000 state employees on the HealthChoice plan (8/18).The Wall Street Journal: Planned Parenthood Settles In Fraud Case Planned Parenthood agreed to pay $4.3 million to settle a federal civil suit claiming that it fraudulently billed Medicaid for women’s health services provided by some of its Texas clinics from 2003 to 2009. The non-profit organization, which estimates that it provides medical information and services, including abortions, to three million people in the U.S. each year, denied any wrongdoing as part of the settlement announced Friday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas (Koppel, 8/16). This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.