Over the years, they’ve delivered people back to every corner of the state, including the Aleutian Islands, Savoonga, Ketchikan and Sitka. A one-way ticket to more remote destinations can cost up to $800. The average price for a ticket is around $500.
The Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans funds between 50-60 trips per year. They ask ticket recipients to pay back the cost of the ticket on a monthly plan, with about a 40 percent success rate. If the ticket cost isn’t paid back, it’s considered once-in-a-lifetime assistance.
While they haven't yet turned anyone away, Budahl worries about demand outpacing funding, which is provided by repaid tickets, grants and donations.
The overwhelming majority – nearly 80 percent -- of ticket recipients have come to Anchorage for medical treatment.
But a few have come to seek work or simply experience city life.
“When they come to us, they realize (Anchorage is) not meeting their needs – culturally, financially or otherwise,” he said. “And they need a way back home.”
A return ticket home is often what keeps those people from becoming homeless, he says.
To qualify for a ticket, applicants must prove they have no other means to buy the airfare. Staffers contact home villages to make sure the person has a place to live there.
“We have to be careful we’re not sending them back to be homeless,” Budahl said.
But most people served by the program have come to Anchorage in the midst of a medical emergency, often on a medevac flight.
Providence Medical Center social worker Justyna Raszewska says that she’s worked with at least 100 patients who’ve needed return fare to return to their villages in the past three years.
Her job is to make sure patients are discharged to stable, secure circumstances where they can continue their medical treatment or recovery. Being stuck in Anchorage away from home and family isn’t conducive to that, she said.
Often a patient’s return trip will be covered by Native Corporation benefits, insurance, a church or family.
But when it isn’t or when family members who have “jumped” medevac flights, riding along with the patient, are involved she turns to the Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans to provide a ticket.
“If (the program) disappeared, I really don’t know what we would do,” she said. “It’s absolutely a necessity.”
Both Nome and Barrow are preparing for new hospitals slated to open between 2012-2014. Still, most acute and trauma patients will be sent to Anchroage.
For Tony Skurla, that’s part of life in the Bush. A former “water gypsy” who spent much of his life working on tugboats and water dredges along the Eastern Seaboard, Skurla came to Alaska to canoe the Yukon River. On a whim, he asked a pilot to take him to Nome, where he’s lived for the past 11 years.
He’s glad Nome finally got a CAT scan machine.
“It would be nice if we did have surgeons up here, too,” he said. “But there ain’t enough money.”
He’s paid back the tickets given to him one monthly payment at a time.
As he ages, Skurla knows he’s going to have to keep flying to Anchorage for medical treatment for ailments that include nerve damage. He might have to sell his ATV to pay for a ticket, or ask the Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans to help him again.
But he’s not moving.
“They’ll have to drag me out of Nome,” he said.