In less than 24 hours, Valerie Davidson has 50 people coming to
her house for dinner.
Davidson, Alaska's health and social services commissioner,
drives her 1983 Chevy truck to pick up salmon for a dinner
party for 50 people.
She had planned to catch and cook enough salmon for the main
course. But early in the morning, Alaska opened the Kuskokwim River
to commercial fishing, which means subsistence fishermen like her
can't fish on it.
So Davidson and I are in her bright orange 1983 Chevy pickup
stalking the "free fish" container where state biologists deposit
their test catches after conducting studies after each high tide.
We have been here for an hour, but Davidson is patient and persistent.
It's the same approach she used as Alaska's health and social services
commissioner while working to expand Medicaid in the state.
During this year's legislative session, lawmakers blocked Medicaid
expansion from coming to a full vote. She says it was a real low
point for her.
"I always have a hard time when as a state we make a decision
to turn our backs on Alaskans who really need help," she says. "That's
a tough one for me."
of silver salmon hang in Valerie Davidson's smokehouse on
the Kuskokwim River in Bethel, Alaska.
So in July, Davidson was thrilled to stand with Alaska Gov.
Bill Walker as he announced he would expand Medicaid without lawmaker
approval. At the press conference, she made a uniquely Alaskan case
for bringing federal health care to low income residents:
"We have so many hard working Alaskans who simply don't have
access to health care. They are missing work," she says. "It is
affecting businesses. They can't take care of their children,
they can't hunt, they can't fish when they're not healthy enough
to do so."
For Davidson, health care and fishing go hand in hand. She was
born in Bethel, near the Bering Sea. Her family is Yup'ik, which
is one of the 11 Alaska native cultures who tend to live in the
western part of the state. In 1998, she earned a law degree and
was soon recruited to work as a lawyer in Alaska's tribal health
system. She lives in Anchorage, but spends her summers at her house
in Bethel, where she works on health policy by day and fishes for
salmon, nights and weekends, that her family will eat all winter
She walks me around her property, stopping in the smokehouse
where dozens of long strips of silver salmon are hanging from racks.
She stuffs one more cottonwood log into the wood stove. She jokes
it's like playing Tetris, but she's intent on getting just the right
flavor for the fish.
prepares dinner for 50 in her kitchen in Bethel, Alaska.
Davidson learned this from her mom, a stern woman she lovingly
describes as conveying the loudest silence you've ever heard just
with her eyebrows. Davidson, who's Yup'ik name is Nurrii, recalls
her mother had a few words when Davidson told her about the health
"I said, 'Well, what do you think, Mom?' She says, 'Well, you
know, Nurrii, we Yup'iks, we're very hard to impress!' " Davidson
laughs hard and continues, "Such a classic Yup'ik response! And
I said, 'Okay, Mom, that's fair.' "
In the house, Davidson's kitchen counter has already disappeared
under piles of zucchini, asparagus and peppers. Tomorrow's dinner
guests are from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization that,
a decade ago, helped Davidson fund a new type of health provider
in Alaska called a dental therapist. Now the state has more than
two dozen of them working in isolated villages in Alaska.
Davidson wants to develop more creative solutions to the state's
toughest public health challenges. "We've seen it play out time
and time again," she says. "When you can provide services at the
local community level, you have better outcomes."
But right now, she needs salmon from the free fish bin, Davidson
is rubbing her eyes and wishing for coffee. Then, finally, a truck
pulls in and Davidson springs out of her seat.
"Are they silvers?" she asks excitedly. The biologist says yes,
and she cheers and claps. "Thank you!" she says.
The biologist drops 10 massive silver salmon into her plastic
tote. She finds cooking a nice contrast to the patience she needs
for her job, where it can take a decade or more to see results.
"With cooking, there's a start, there's a finish. You feed people,
there's something to show for it. For me, it's really relaxing,"
But between cooking for 50 people and leading the state through
the transition to Medicaid expansion, which could bring health insurance
to up to 40,000 residents, she has a lot of work ahead of her.