Advocates push for a boost in Denali KidCare funding

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Denali KidCare supporters are making what could be a last-ditch push against Gov. Sean Parnell's thwarting of efforts to restore the state health insurance program for lower-income children and pregnant women to the level it was before the Legislature made cuts to eligibility in 2003.

There was a rally and a hearing Thursday in support of Senate Bill 5, which the sponsor says would add an additional 1,300 uninsured children and 200 pregnant women to the health care roll.

"I believe if the public knows the bill is still alive and there is a possibility that it can pass, they might want to help push it," said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bettye Davis, the sponsor of the bill. "I'm saying to people, you have legislators and if you support it, then let them know."

Parnell vetoed the expansion of Denali KidCare in 2010, saying he first supported it and then changed his mind when he realized the courts require that some money from the program go to fund abortions.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Thursday Parnell would veto the bill again if the Legislature passes it in the coming legislative session.

"The governor's position on Denali KidCare has not changed. He will not support expanding a program that funds abortions in Alaska," she said.

The Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill in 2010 before Parnell vetoed it. But now Davis is struggling to even get it out of the Senate, where the bill failed on a 10-10 vote taken in April.

"What's coming to me now is legislators saying, 'Why are you bringing it back? (Parnell) is going to veto it,' " Davis said. "Well, I can't have that mind-set. The governor is the governor of this state but he's only one individual."

The upcoming 90-day legislative session, which begins in January, could be the best chance supporters have to get the bill through the Legislature for a while. That's because the redrawing of legislative districts, done after the 2010 Census, will make it harder for Democrats to remain in power as part of the bipartisan majority that controls the state Senate.

Davis herself, who now represents an East Anchorage district, would have to run for election next year in a new district that includes more conservative areas of Eagle River and the lower Hillside. The new plan also pits two incumbent Fairbanks Democratic senators against each other, which could potentially change the current even balance between the parties in the Senate.

More than 40 Denali KidCare supporters rallied Thursday outside the legislative offices in downtown Anchorage, including Davis and fellow Democratic Sens. Johnny Ellis and Hollis French. Supporters also testified at a hearing of the Senate health committee, which Davis chairs. Sarah Weber of Anchorage spoke about how her baby was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer at the age of 5 months and was only able to get treatment quickly because of Denali KidCare.

"That tells me this bill is one of the most pro-life things we can do," said Mary Sullivan of the Alaska Primary Care Association.

Other advocates talked about how Alaska, while it enjoys big budget surpluses, is one of just four states that don't fund children's health insurance at 200 percent or more of the federal poverty level, which in Alaska is $55,880 for a family of four.

The income cutoff for Denali KidCare is 175 percent of the federal poverty level, which is currently $48,895 for a family of four in Alaska. Davis' bill seeks to raise the Alaska eligibility level to 200 percent of the poverty level, which it was before the Legislature scaled it back in 2003.

Advocates spoke of how the federal government provides up to 70 percent of matching funds for the state program. They said Alaska has seen a decline over the past decade in the number of children who are covered under private insurance. Such uninsured children mean health care costs will be higher for everyone else in Alaska, they argued.

The state annual cost estimate for expanding the program is more than $1 million in general funds but the argument hasn't been about price.

Denali KidCare is required to fund "medically necessary" abortions because of a 2001 Alaska Supreme Court ruling. The court ruled that "if the state undertakes to fund medically necessary services for poor Alaskans, it may not exclude from that program women who medically require abortions." The state does not define what is "medically necessary," leaving that to the treating physician.

About 0.18 percent of the Denali KidCare budget goes to fund "abortion related services." The Department of Health and Social Services has said 618 individuals received abortion-related services in 2010. Those services include things such as office visits, lab tests, sonograms or abortions. The state has said it's possible some of the women received such services in anticipation of obtaining an abortion but that those women in the end did not get abortions paid by the state.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer was the only lawmaker who voted in April against expanding the program to come to Thursday's hearing and listen to advocates. He said he wanted to hear what the public had to say but didn't change his mind.

Meyer said he shares Parnell's concern that the program pays for abortions.

"It does bother me that this money could be going for that use," said Meyer, the Senate majority leader.

He said it's a difficult question because Denali KidCare helps people and he would support its expansion if not for the abortion issue.

Reach Sean Cockerham at or 257-4344.

Anchorage Daily News