ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Psychiatric Institute is addressing challenges including the onset of the coronavirus after ending a partnership with a private company that was meant to stabilize Alaska’s sole psychiatric hospital.
The state severed ties with Wellpath Recovery Solutions in June after hiring the company in 2019 to help overcome hospital dysfunction including a threat to its major federal funding sources, The Anchorage Daily News reported Sunday.
The Department of Health and Social Services ended the contract with Tennessee-based Wellpath when the need for its services decreased, spokesman Clint Bennett said in an email.
The institute has made progress but is functioning with fewer patients than the 80 for which it is designed, while contending with operating during the pandemic, officials said.
The hospital currently has about 260 filled staff positions and 50 patients, officials said.
Alaska’s initial contract with Wellpath in February 2019 included $1 million per month to stabilize the institute on an emergency basis, and then paying $43 million per year to operate the hospital at its 80-bed capacity.
The plan met backlash from critics of Wellpath’s roots in the private prison industry and scrutiny over the no-bid contract. The state cancelled the long-term contract and progressively decreased the amount, ultimately paying $12.25 million over 18 months.
The health and social services department credits Wellpath with assisting the hospital in keeping its accreditation.
Officials also note achievements including a new nurse training internship, a modest decrease in staff turnover, improvements in patient care quality and filling key vacant positions.
Randall Burns, a former institute CEO and director of the state Division of Behavioral Health, said knowing how policymakers prioritize mental health care now is difficult.
“I understand that the pandemic requires real focus on COVID-19,” Burns said. “But it does not change the need for behavioral health treatment. And those with chronic mental illness have not gone away.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.