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Alaska House Finance Committee stalls Medicaid expansion proposal

JUNEAU -- House Finance Committee co-chair Steve Thompson said Thursday that the panel is not comfortable moving ahead with plans to expand Medicaid coverage in Alaska at this time.

The decision deals a blow to Gov. Bill Walker, who campaigned on expansion and made it a priority of his administration. It follows days of committee hearings that focused little on the bill and more on issues surrounding the Medicaid program, including a provider payment system plagued by bugs following its 2013 launch but has improved significantly, state health officials said.

Thompson, R-Fairbanks, said the hearings made clear "that Medicaid is a bigger problem than we knew."

While the bill includes provisions the administration would pursue aimed at reducing and containing costs within the program, Thompson said the bill lacked specifics and that it would be best for the administration and lawmakers to hear from consultants — not yet hired — on reform strategies before moving ahead. Thompson was the only member who spoke during the brief hearing in Anchorage, which was streamed on the Internet. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and a Finance member, said Thompson did not speak for the full committee.

Walker, in a statement, said he was disappointed by the committee's actions and its refusal to take public testimony during the special session hearings. He said he would continue to work with the Legislature to advance Medicaid expansion and reform, "which is what an overwhelming majority of Alaskans want."

Medicaid comprises a large percentage of the state health department budget and is a driver of Alaska's operating budget. The administration has seen expansion as a way to leverage federal dollars to help finance efforts to rein in and curb costs within the program.

For states accepting expansion, the federal government is to pay 100 percent of health care costs for newly eligible recipients through calendar year 2016, stepping down to 90 percent by 2020.

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