Palin on health care

Her council did good work, but follow-through was lacking

October 7, 2008 

Affordable access to good health care is high on the list of national concerns, right behind the economy and energy. Both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have proposed dramatic changes to health insurance in this country.

McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has a much stronger record on energy than on health care.

NOT A CAMPAIGN ISSUE

She did not make a big issue of health care in her campaign for governor. During her two years in office, she has focused almost exclusively on ethics reform and high-stakes efforts to reform oil taxes and stimulate progress on an Alaska gas pipeline to the Lower 48.

Gov. Palin did recognize that Alaska's health care services are in trouble. She formed a health care policy council in 2007 to recommend improvements, and it came up with laudable goals -- lower health care costs for Alaskans, and making health care widely available, for example.

Most notably, the council supported a modest expansion of the state health insurance program for children of working families.

ON THE SIDELINES

Unfortunately, Palin did not sign on to any plan to improve Alaska's health care system.

Her administration did support two moves that will eventually pay off for Alaskans: construction of a new health sciences building at UAA and expansion of university health programs were approved this year.

Palin, however, ignored the council's recommendation to extend state health insurance to more children and pregnant women in poor and middle class families. She spurned that idea even though the federal government pays more than half the cost. In Alaska, only children in families earning 175 percent of the federal poverty level, or less, are eligible. For a family of three, that's a maximum of $38,500. Most states offer such insurance to families with earnings at 200 percent, or double the federal poverty level -- $44,000 for the family of three.

If Palin had supported the move, legislators pushing to cover more Alaska children might have succeeded. But Palin was simply absent from that discussion in this year's Legislature.

Palin also did not take a stand on ambitious legislation that would have improved health care coverage -- a bill to ensure that all residents have health insurance, without disrupting the coverage that many Alaskans already have. Supporters of the bill knew it wouldn't pass, but they would have appreciated some support from Gov. Palin.

Palin did get behind a few other pieces of legislation.

A CURIOUS PRIORITY

During her campaign for governor, she argued that Alaska should get rid of its certificate of need program, a requirement that the state approve certain new health facilities. Getting rid of it, she argued, would promote competition and drive down health care costs. Her stand on the issue echoed the position taken by one of her campaign volunteers, lobbyist Paul Fuhs. He represented a company that would benefit from eliminating the certificate of need program.

The Legislature spurned Gov. Palin's call. Her efforts to get rid of the certificate of need probably detracted from other, more helpful health care initiatives.

Palin also proposed to set up a state health commission that would evaluate the state's health care needs, and to create a state Web site with consumer information. Neither issue won approval.

The latter two ideas are not bad, but more study and more information will not get health services to more people who need them any time soon.

For the most part, Palin has not pursued any significant measures that would improve or expand access to health care services in Alaska.

BOTTOM LINE: Gov. Palin has made small steps toward better health care for Alaskans but has yet to achieve significant improvements. Coming Sunday, a look at Palin's record on energy issues.

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