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House Republican defends appeal in suit over Alaska Medicaid expansion

The House Republican who filed an appeal in the Alaska Legislature's lawsuit over Medicaid expansion defended his decision in a phone interview Tuesday, saying he disregarded legal advice from the Legislature's own attorney because it was a "wrong opinion."

Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said he filed the appeal with the Supreme Court on Thursday. The case seeks to halt the expansion of Medicaid, a health care program for low-income Alaskans that Gov. Bill Walker unilaterally expanded last year. The expansion went into effect in August.

The Legislature's case against the expansion was dismissed in Superior Court in March. It was unclear whether the Legislature would appeal to the Supreme Court; a legislative legal opinion said that either the House and Senate must vote on continuing the appeal or one body could vote to take up the appeal, substituting itself as the plaintiff and paying for the litigation from the budget of either the House speaker or Senate president.

Johnson said Tuesday that no vote was needed to appeal the case.

"I think it's a wrong opinion," Johnson said of the legal advice. "And other attorneys I've talked to say it's not done until you take it as far as you can take it, and that's the Supreme Court."

In response to the appeal, House Democrats cried foul. "Plain and simple, this is an abuse of power by the majority leadership in the House," Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said in a statement released Friday.

Johnson said a full vote by the House would be "a bridge we'll cross when we get there."

"I'm not sure what that does -- I haven't thought that far," Johnson said.

More money will be needed to further the appeal, according to Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who said last week that the $450,000 allocated for the lawsuit would not see the case through the Supreme Court.

Additional funding for the lawsuit will likely be less than $20,000 and could come from the presiding officer's funds, said Mark Higgins, an aide to Johnson. Attorneys retained from Washington, D.C., accepted an "all-inclusive" flat fee for the case, so any additional money would go to local attorneys' fees.

The appeal could take 12 to 18 months, Higgins said.

Reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.

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