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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
Callan Chythlook-Sifsof is the first indigenous Alaskan to represent the US in the Olympics.
A member of the US Snowboard team since 2006, Chythlook-Sifsof credits her success to Alaska Native values and culture.
Alaska Public Media’s Daysha Eaton interviews.
In Congress tonight, a massive spending package has emerged after weeks of intense negotiations among lawmakers, and it contains good news for Alaskans. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, top Republican on the subcommittee for Interior Department spending, has announced that she’s secured $66 million to staff the state’s six new tribally operated health care facilities.
The federal government released numbers today that give an idea of who is signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
In Alaska, about 3000 people selected marketplace plans before Dec. 28 and 83 percent qualify for a subsidy to help pay for premiums. But Enroll Alaska has seen a steep drop off in the number of people signing up for insurance in the New Year.
Only three other states have lower enrollment figures than Alaska. Eric Earling is spokesperson for Premera Alaska, one of two insurers offering health plans on the federal marketplace in the state. He says the figure for total enrollment in Alaska is low, but not surprising.
“Unfortunately given the reality of the technical challenges healthcare.gov had, enrollment is going to be lower than everybody expected and those numbers reflect that,” Earling said.
Earling says Premera isn’t ready to release its own enrollment figures. Earling says overall, the low numbers can be party attributed to the fact that thousands of Alaskans will be able keep health plans that were supposed to be canceled in 2014. That’s a change President Obama announced in the fall.
Enroll Alaska has signed up more than 900 people in marketplace plans, but the pace of enrollment has slowed considerably. COO Tyann Boling says in the last few weeks of 2013, the company was signing up as many as 70 Alaskans a day for insurance. As soon as January 1st hit, that figure plunged by more than half:
“It was a dramatic decrease and we’re trying to do everything we can to get some momentum going again,” Boling said.
Boling thinks there’s a lot of consumer confusion over enrollment deadlines. Enroll Alaska is renewing their advertising effort to get the word out that people have until March 31st to sign up for insurance to avoid paying a tax penalty.
Boling says the healthcare.gov website has only been working well for about six weeks. She thinks the months when it failed had a big negative impact.
“I think the momentum was crushed because of the functionality of healthcare.gov. I think the people enrolling have always intended to enroll,” Boling said. “And so really our goal and objective is to get out to the people who aren’t aware of this law and truly can benefit from this. I just don’t think people understand there’s a great benefit there for them.”
As Eric Earling, with Premera, puts it, the disastrous healthcare.gov launch “significantly altered the equation of what was possible.”
But he says there’s still time to boost enrollment numbers and it’s too early to draw many conclusions from the federal data. The company expected the first year of the Affordable Care Act would be a roller coaster ride and Earling says Premera was ready.
“There were going to be some twists and turns that were unexpected, there were going to be events that happened in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act that couldn’t be predicted and so everything that the entire system has experienced in the last few months is certainly systemic of that,” Earling said.
Across the country, 1.2 million people have selected marketplace plans on healthcare.gov. The number of enrollments began to spike the last week of November.
The operator of the North Pole refinery wants the state to set a lower standard for cleaning up the sulfolane groundwater-contamination problem in the North Pole area. Flint Hills Resources Alaska has asked the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to set a less-stringent cleanup level for the industrial solvent that leaked into the groundwater for more than a decade before Flint Hills bought the refinery in 2004. The requests could delay cleanup for several months.
A new study says Akutan Volcano could be an even more promising source of geothermal energy than previously thought.
It’s been three decades since the U.S. Geological Survey last studied Akutan’s volcano-powered hot springs. Since then, head researcher Deborah Bergfeld says the springs have gotten stronger, and there’s more material from Akutan Volcano dissolved in the springwater.
“These are all good indicators that there might be a reservoir of hot water big enough to supply geothermal power,” she says.
Bergfeld says a volcanic eruption and seismic activity in the 1990s could account for the increase in power potential — the springs are now producing 29 megawatts of heat. That number would shrink when converted into electricity. But Bergfeld says it would still be substantial.
“We don’t have enough data to say how many megawatts of electricity you could get out of it. We just said that there would be a potential for several,” she says. “Each megawatt could power about 750 homes.”
It sounds like a good deal for the city’s small residential population and its large Trident Seafoods processing plant. Right now, that all runs on fuel oil barged in from Unalaska.
But Bergfeld says a strong volcanic resource alone isn’t enough to tell whether geothermal is worth the cost of installation.
“You also have to have a need for the power. So it has to be people living there… there’s a lot of economy,” she says. “The balance has to work out.”
That’s a balance Akutan is hoping to strike. They’ve been working on a plan to tap into their geothermal resource for years, with the help of several grants.
Akutan mayor Joe Bereskin says the new USGS data will help their cause as they work on a business plan.
“I think there’s a customer base here,” he says. “We just have to make the numbers work. And that’s what our next goal is, to see if it all makes financial sense.”
They hope to have that business plan done in the next month.