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Committee will examine potential legal challenge to Medicaid expansion in Alaska

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 17, 2015

A joint Alaska House-Senate committee has scheduled a meeting Tuesday to examine whether the Legislature can challenge Gov. Bill Walker's move to expand the Medicaid health care program.

Walker announced last month that he was using his executive power to expand Medicaid after lawmakers rejected his attempts to do so during the legislative session earlier in the year.

Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, made Medicaid expansion one of his key promises during his campaign for governor last year. His administration says expansion to as many as 40,000 low-income residents will actually save the state money, though Republican legislative leaders have been skeptical of those claims and argue that federal funding for the program isn't reliable.

Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said Tuesday's meeting of the Legislative Council is to see if lawmakers agree whether Walker has the ability to unilaterally expand Medicaid.

"We're going to have legal advice telling us whether or not we do have grounds to make a challenge," Meyer said in a phone interview.

The meeting is at 11 a.m. at the Legislature's Anchorage office building and will be held in executive session, meaning it won't be open to the public.

Walker is proposing to expand Medicaid using a committee process, set in state law, that allows him to accept federal money to pay for the program.

The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which received Walker's proposal, has the authority to review his request and make recommendations -- but not to block it, which the committee's chair, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, has acknowledged.

Walker gave the committee a 45-day notice July 16, meaning that the expansion would take effect Sept. 1.

Meyer said one potential legal argument that the Legislature could use hinges on whether Walker's move would offer new services to an "optional" group of Medicaid recipients, whose care is not required under federal law.

Expansion of Medicaid to optional groups requires legislative approval under state law.

Some members of Meyer's Republican-led majority caucus in the Senate, including Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, argue that Walker's proposed expansion under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, would cover an optional group.

But supporters of expansion say that coverage of the new group of 40,000 low-income Alaskans was mandatory under the federal legislation.

In a written statement Monday afternoon, Walker pointed to the more than $100 million in savings his administration projects over the first six years of Medicaid expansion.

"As governor, I have the legal authority and responsibility to accept health care benefits that are 100 percent federally funded," the statement said. "We will continue to work with the Legislature and the public on Medicaid redesign and reform efforts."

A spokeswoman for Walker also emailed a letter sent to Coghill last month by Attorney General Craig Richards that describes how coverage of the expansion population is required under federal law.

It refers to a key U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare that barred the federal government from enforcing the expansion requirement in the health care law by pulling Medicaid funding from states that didn't comply.

The ruling, Richards says, didn't change the underlying law making expansion required.

Meanwhile, another legislative committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the state's budget and its multibillion-dollar deficit.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, who chairs the House Finance Committee, declined to discuss the planned hearing in detail. But he said in a brief phone interview Monday that he plans to discuss the deficit as well as where the Walker administration would find $30 million in unspecified savings it said it would make during budget negotiations in June.