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Alaska Legislature's Medicaid lawsuit gets first court hearing Thursday

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 26, 2015

The Alaska Legislature's high-stakes lawsuit to stop Gov. Bill Walker from expanding the state's public Medicaid health care program gets its first appearance in court Thursday.

A lawyer from the state attorney general's office is expected to represent Walker, with help from Dillon & Findley, an Anchorage law firm that's offered its assistance for free.

The Legislature has authorized spending up to $400,000 on a Virginia-based firm, Bancroft Pllc., that represented more than two dozen states in their challenge to the federal Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Lawmakers have also approved spending up to $50,000 on a second law firm, Holmes, Weddle & Barcott, which has an office in Anchorage.

Oral arguments are set for 2:30 p.m. in the Nesbett Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, before Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner.

Margaret Paton-Walsh, one of the state attorneys managing the team of lawyers working on Walker's defense, said she expected to be at her office past midnight Wednesday, with a filing deadline at 11 a.m. Thursday. It's not clear, she added, whether Pfiffner would issue a ruling from the bench Thursday, or some time later.

The Legislature is seeking a court order that would stop Walker's administration from acting unilaterally to expand Medicaid under provisions of Obamacare to newly cover up to 40,000 low-income Alaskans. Without an order, expansion is set to take effect Sept. 1, based on a 45-day notice Walker gave a legislative committee in July.

Walker's administration says the expansion -- fully federally funded through the end of next year, with the exception of administrative costs -- is lawful and would save the state money, while Republicans pushing the court challenge say his move could lead to unsustainable costs in the future. Federal government support for the expanded Medicaid program is scheduled to scale back to 90 percent of costs by 2020, with the state on the hook for the rest.

The Legislature has framed its opposition as a constitutional matter, saying that state law forbids Walker from using federal money for the expanded Medicaid program without legislative approval.

Walker and his allies have characterized the lawsuit as a bid to effectively deny health care coverage for the poor.

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