Compass: Medicaid expansion is right thing to do for Alaskans

During the 2013 legislative session we understood when Gov. Sean Parnell announced he needed time to learn more about the costs involved in expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Although we were disappointed by his decision not to expand coverage immediately, we were encouraged by his willingness to continue studying the issue, and we felt confident that given time to learn the details he would come to the right decision.

Like others, we've been perplexed by the governor's refusal to make public a Medicaid expansion study carried out for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in April. We would rather not speculate on what his motivation might be for holding back such useful information. Instead, with the deadline of January 1 fast approaching, we feel the time has come for us to publicly urge Gov. Parnell to move ahead with the expansion. With or without the "secret study," the facts speak for themselves.

Of the approximately 120,000 children and adults currently without medical insurance in Alaska, about 40,000 would be eligible for coverage under Medicaid if the state does expand the program. More than 15,000 of the newly eligible would be Alaska Natives.

In addition to improving the lives of so many Alaskans, the expansion has the potential to produce significant economic benefits.

It's no surprise that the Alaska Chamber recently came out in support of Medicaid expansion. Unpaid medical bills cost Alaskan hospitals nearly $180 million in 2010. In most cases, those losses translate into higher prices for patients who do have insurance. Expanding Medicaid coverage would dramatically reduce the amount of unpaid bills, bringing down fees for insured Alaskans who have borne the brunt of cost shifting. Overall medical costs would also likely drop, since more people would have preventative care available and fewer people would seek primary care through emergency room visits. What's more, research by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium found that the expansion will create about 3500 new jobs by 2017.

The federal government will pay the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years. Afterwards, the state would become responsible for just ten percent of program costs. Between 2014 and 2020, this would result in more than $1.1 billion in federal funding leveraged by less than $91 million in state spending. That's $12 in federal funds for every dollar that comes from the state. If some time in the future the state found that the expansion was not to its advantage, it has the right to reverse course.

At a time when oil revenues are dropping significantly and Alaska is facing the real prospect of less federal funds coming our way, we feel we cannot afford to pass up the positive economic impacts of Medicaid expansion.

But the bottom line is expanding Medicaid is the right thing to do. We care deeply about the wellbeing of our constituents in western Alaska, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. We are convinced that taking this step will make life better for them and for thousands of other Alaskans across the state. We hope Gov. Parnell agrees.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) is chairman of the House Bush Caucus and represents communities from the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers south across Bristol Bay and east to the shores of Cook Inlet. Rep. Bob Herron (D-Bethel) is a Bush Caucus member and co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission.