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Medicaid expansion in Alaska is too practical to end a casualty of politics

  • Author: Sen. Gardner
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published June 12, 2015

When politics overtake pragmatism and statesmanship, good policy falls victim to bad behavior. That has happened to Medicaid expansion in the Alaska Legislature. A good economic and practical policy decision has been blocked by ideologically driven majorities in the state House and Senate. Having no reasonable arguments against a policy that would help cushion Alaska's current fiscal fall, provide critical health coverage access to thousands of hardworking and vulnerable Alaskans while infusing thousands of high-wage jobs into our economy, the majorities have resorted to straw men, red herrings and simple nonsense to justify a poor decision that hurts our state.

The House Finance Committee held several Medicaid expansion hearings during the simulated special sessions, but the majority co-chairs prevented any public testimony. Instead they questioned Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson about information that is no longer relevant. While Davidson and her team have been patient, the hearings were more like an inquisition than an inquiry.

And, like boats made of paper, the Republican arguments against expansion continue to absorb facts and sink under the weight of reality and public opinion. Republican leadership has clearly approached the question with preconceived notions and their minds already made up. No amount of evidence and reason seem capable of persuading them to do what is right for Alaska. In the face of overwhelming evidence that expansion would benefit Alaskans and that a majority of Alaskans want it, legislative majorities have effectively tabled the discussion.

The economics of expansion alone are enough to convince any reasonable Alaskan. Expansion would, between 2016 and 2021, infuse $1.1 billion into a state economy currently running a $3.9 billion deficit. It will create as many as 4,000 local living wage jobs, generating $2.5 billion of new economic activity for Alaska. Medicaid expansion is the only opportunity on the near horizon capable of having that kind of economic impact -- and, by the way, that revenue represents our tax dollars at work for us. Rejecting Medicaid expansion is the economic equivalent of turning down your own tax return just after you've lost your job.

The economic benefits of expansion are undeniable, but expansion is also a moral imperative. Tens of thousands of Alaskans currently go without health care coverage. While expansion opponents like to paint these Alaskans as deadbeats, loafing around the house in slippers and waiting for the next handout, we know the truth is far different. Most of these vulnerable Alaskans are working one or more jobs, trying to hold their families together on low wages with no benefits to speak of. They happen to fall below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, so they don't qualify for coverage assistance. A simple earache for a toddler can quickly become a catastrophe, resulting in an expensive ER visit and suffering for the child that could have been avoided with a timely antibiotic. These Alaskans are not strangers trying to invade our state to steal our pocket change. These are our friends and neighbors, and we can help them live healthier more dignified lives while also helping the state through these difficult economic times.

House and Senate Democrats held public listening sessions in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau on May 14. Alaskans came out in overwhelming support for Medicaid expansion. Clearly House and Senate majority leadership do not represent the majority of Alaskans who are dedicated to making our state a healthier and more prosperous place to raise a family. On that same day the House Finance Committee tabled discussion of expansion, claiming the system is even more broken than they'd originally thought, despite continuous testimony from Commissioner Davidson and her staff that the system is, in fact, operating at 90 percent efficiency.

Our system is ready to handle expansion, and Alaskans are clearly in favor of doing what is right, both economically and morally, for our state. Please contact legislative leadership and tell them to put ideology and partisanship aside and do the right thing, and what their constituents want. Together we can make Alaska healthier, both literally and economically.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, serves as leader of the Senate Democrats and represents Spenard, Midtown, and the U-Med district in Senate District I.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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