The Alaska Legislature plans to hire a consultant to help lawmakers separate "fact from fiction" in the debate over expansion and reform of the public Medicaid health care program.
The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, on Friday issued a request for proposals for what it called an "independent professional policy resource."
The consultant, the request said, would "aid in the development of the understanding necessary to make informed public policy decisions regarding the Medicaid reform and expansion proposals that are under consideration by the Legislature."
Hawker was out of state and didn't respond to a message. A spokesman for the House majority referred questions to a committee aide in Hawker's Juneau office, and a message left there was not returned.
Medicaid currently covers about 125,000 pregnant women, low-income children and people with disabilities in Alaska.
Gov. Bill Walker promised during his campaign last year to expand the program under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, to cover up to an additional 40,000 low-income Alaskans.
Walker's administration said expansion would save millions of dollars and boost Alaska's economy by bringing more federal money into the state. But the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected Walker's proposal earlier this year, with members saying they were concerned about Medicaid's growing costs. They said the program needed to be reformed, not necessarily expanded.
The Walker administration in February released a report on Medicaid expansion laying out projected enrollment, costs and demographics. Administration officials presented additional details at hearings throughout the legislative session, and the state health department has six Medicaid fact sheets posted on its website.
But Republicans have voiced skepticism of that information, with Hawker at one point saying the budget savings projected by the Walker administration were "gratuitous assertions."
At the start of the legislative session, the Senate Finance Committee hired its own consultant at a cost of up to $45,000 to work on issues related to health care and Medicaid expansion: former state health commissioner Bill Streur.
Streur worked under former Gov. Sean Parnell, who declined to expand Medicaid while he was in office. In April, the Senate Finance Committee allowed its co-chairs to extend Streur's contract through the end of the year, for up to $60,000.
Those co-chairs could not be reached Friday. Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, one of the strongest critics of Medicaid expansion, was unavailable until early next week, a spokesman for the Senate's Republican majority said.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, who's also vice chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, didn't return a phone message.
The request for proposals issued Friday says that the consultant will analyze Medicaid reform and expansion bills being considered by the Legislature, and make presentations to committees and answer lawmakers' questions.
Committee hearings are expected to occur during special legislative sessions this fall, as well as during the next regular legislative session, beginning in January, the request says.
Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, is the only lawmaker on the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee who's part of the Democratic minority, which supports Medicaid expansion. Kito said in a phone interview that he thought hiring a consultant was unnecessary.
"I don't believe we need to have a consultant to decide whether Medicaid expansion is good for Alaska -- and I do think we need to expand it without further delay," he said.
Responses to the Legislature's request for proposals are due July 6.
Legal opinions by both the attorney general's office and the Legislature's legal staff suggest Walker might have the constitutional authority to expand Medicaid without concurrence of the Legislature.