In Alaska, we pay more for health care than do most Americans. In much of the United States, a medical emergency typically means a $400 ambulance ride. In Alaska, it often means a $50,000 medevac across unforgiving terrain and through unpredictable weather.
Access to affordable health care coverage should not be a partisan issue. That's why I joined seven other governors last week in urging Congress to take action right away to make health care coverage more stable and affordable — without shifting the costs to states and without jeopardizing the resources and care for our most vulnerable.
Two years ago, I chose to expand Medicaid coverage. Since then, more than 36,000 Alaskans have received life-saving care — and peace of mind knowing they have health care coverage. That should be protected.
As the nation's only independent governor, I am able to look for innovative public policy solutions from both sides of the aisle — as long as those ideas work for Alaskans. Thanks to my team's out-of-the-box thinking, premiums in the individual market are projected to decrease 20 percent in Alaska.
Here's why — and how — we did it:
While the Affordable Care Act ensured health care coverage, it also drove up already high insurance costs. Within two years, insurance premiums in the individual market increased almost 80 percent — the equivalent of an additional mortgage for many families. The burden was staggering for Alaskans, who already pay more for basic living expenses than other Americans.
Three health care insurers have left the state since 2015, and the remaining insurer said it could not commit to continuing in the market because of the high cost of providing care for a small population with rare and costly medical conditions. Without a solution, those costs would have been passed on to 23,000 Alaskans — or the insurer would have had to pull out, leaving Alaskans without health insurance options.
So my team and I worked on legislation to establish a state health insurance fund through the Alaska Comprehensive Health Insurance Association to stabilize rates. Instead of spreading the cost of the claims to Alaskans enrolled in the individual market, the cost would be covered through the insurance premium tax already paid by all insurance companies that operate in the state. The bill passed the Legislature unanimously.
Premiums were slated to increase by 40 percent, but because of the reinsurance program, they only increased by 7 percent. For the first time in recent memory, and also strongly bucking national trends, premiums in the individual market are expected to decrease by as much as 20 percent in Alaska.
The State of Alaska's Division of Insurance also applied for a federal 1332 State Innovation Waiver to receive about 80 percent of the funding necessary for the reinsurance program. We received $322 million in federal funds to lower health insurance premiums. The waiver was the first of its kind, and lauded by both the Obama and Trump administrations.
While the ACA has provided for health care coverage to millions who otherwise would have faced financial ruin or worse, there is still room for improvement. We are proud that Alaska's very own Sen. Lisa Murkowski is among those leading the charge for change. We stand ready to work with anyone, regardless of party, to ensure access to affordable health care coverage. Building a stronger Alaska begins with healthy Alaskans.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is a Republican turned independent who joined with Democrat Byron Mallott to form the unity ticket in 2014. They serve as the nation's only nonpartisan governor and lieutenant governor.
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