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Judge dismisses Alaska Legislature's lawsuit over Medicaid expansion

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2016

A Superior Court judge dismissed the Alaska Legislature's lawsuit to halt Gov. Bill Walker's Medicaid expansion Tuesday.

In his decision and order, Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner concluded that the state acted within the bounds of the law when it expanded Medicaid.

Legal arguments from both sides had focused on what was required under federal law, because state law says that Alaska must comply with federal requirements. Pfiffner sided with Walker.

"Because the Social Security Act requires expansion, state law makes the expansion group eligible for Medicaid services. Because existing law required the Governor to provide Medicaid to the expansion group, the Governor did not violate the Alaska Constitution by doing so," Pfiffner wrote.

During oral arguments in February, Pfiffner noted that there was little chance the lawsuit would be resolved by the scheduled end of the legislative session in April, given a likely appeal. He called himself a "speed bump" along the way to the Alaska Supreme Court by the losing party.

Whether the Legislature would appeal the ruling was still being considered Tuesday, Senate Majority spokeswoman Michaela Goertzen said, but "I know that's something that (the Senate majority) has said in the past that they would likely do."

The Legislative Council, on behalf of the Legislature, sued Walker's administration in mid-August to stop him from unilaterally expanding the health care program.

Medicaid expansion took effect Aug. 31, opening the program to childless adults whose income falls beneath 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or an annual salary of about $20,000.

"I am pleased the Superior Court agrees I have the authority to expand federally funded Medicaid coverage to thousands of Alaskans," Walker said in a prepared statement. "We will continue to work with the legislature on Medicaid redesign and reform efforts."

In his decision, Pfiffner said his role was limited to interpreting what statutes meant, not to creating new programs.

"This order interprets the law," he wrote. "It says nothing about the merits of expanding Medicaid. It says nothing about the merits of giving that choice to either the executive or the legislative branch of government."

In a prepared statement, House Democrats cheered the decision and urged the Republican-led Legislative Council to forgo any appeal.

"Lawmakers should be working toward Medicaid reform and the hundreds of millions in savings, not wasting money by suing the Governor for doing something he was obligated to do by the law," said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage.

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