Compass: Parnell's Medicaid decision is a slap at Alaskans

By VICKI PENWELLNovember 22, 2013 

Did you hear that? No, it wasn't an 80-mile-an-hour chinook blowing down Turnagain Arm. No, it wasn't two feet of snow sliding off a metal roof.

It was the sound of Gov. Parnell stomping on more than 40,000 uninsured, low-income Alaskans. He trampled them into the ground as he told us that their struggles to access health care were not as important as making a political point.

His decision is going to cost us. All of us. It will cost us money, productivity and quality of life. It is going to cost people their lives. This decision does not maintain the status quo -- it throws Alaskans under the bus.

For anyone who has been complaining about insurance rates going up, hang on. It's going to get worse. Gov. Parnell, champion of respect and family, has cost Alaska hospitals millions of dollars in federal aid they used to get to help cover the cost of uninsured patients. Putting low-income Americans on Medicaid saves federal tax dollars by ending that subsidy. Oops.

Now that sound is Gov. Parnell and the GOP-led Legislature opening the door to oil and gas companies by giving them a tax break and slamming the door on, well, pretty much everybody else. Expanding Medicaid would have been an economic boom (a sustainable boom) to every city and village in the state. It would have created jobs and increased demand for health care related programs at every University of Alaska campus. It would have attracted new business. I got it. Good for the economy.

Now you probably hear me banging my head on my desk as I struggle to understand the downside to Medicaid expansion. But there's not one. I got it. Right thing to do.

Gov. Parnell, I get it. You hate Obamacare, yet have no problem taking federal money to support oil and gas exploration, transportation or disaster relief while telling Washington no thanks to money supporting early childhood development or health care. I get that you are up for re-election. You worry that you are not popular enough to win the general election. You must be desperate to appear seriously conservative. You cannot risk being confused with a moderate by accepting a program that might benefit poor people.

What I don't get is how you can look Alaskans in the eye, including the Alaskan who brewed your espresso and baked your pastry, and say, "I'm sorry (kind of) that you aren't going to have access to the same great medical care I do but you can feel really good about standing up for my principles."

Oh, snap, when Gov. Parnell made his Medicaid announcement he didn't look any Alaskans in the eye, other than reporters. There's a man who really shows the strength of his convictions. Kind of like waiting until Katie John died and the Alaska Federation of Natives conference was over to say he was pursuing the state's long dead, but now undead, lawsuit over rural subsistence fishing rights.

Full disclosure, I do have a personal interest. My son has cystic fibrosis and Medicaid expansion would have helped him. He is uninsured and works seasonally in tourism, a field he loves. Soon, I'm going to tell him goodbye. He has accepted a job in Colorado, where he will make about as much in a year as he did here in six months. Most likely he will get employer-provided health insurance or access to Colorado's working Market Place, created by Coloradans. If in the future he becomes too ill to work full time, Colorado offers expanded Medicaid.

Did the governor's announcement on Nov. 15 cause my son to move out of state? No, but it sure sealed the deal, and instead of crying as he pulls out of the driveway, I'll be cheering.

Vicki Penwell is a volunteer for the National Patient Advocate Foundation and serves on its Presidents Council. She is a longtime health care advocate and an Alaskan since 1989. She lives near Nabesna.

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