House Finance stalls Walker’s Medicaid expansion proposal

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Thursday, May 14, 2015 9:16pm
  • News

JUNEAU — House Finance Committee co-chair Steve Thompson said Thursday that the panel is not comfortable moving ahead with plans to expand Medicaid coverage in Alaska at this time.

The decision deals a blow to Gov. Bill Walker, who campaigned on expansion and made it a priority of his administration. It followed three days of hearings focused heavily on issues surrounding the Medicaid program, including a provider payment system plagued by bugs following its 2013 launch. State health officials said the system has improved significantly in recent months and would be capable of handling new claims associated with any expansion effort.

Problems with the payment system prompted the state to file a complaint last year against the vendor it hired to develop and implement the program. That case has been put on hold to allow for continued work to resolve major system issues, a Department of Law attorney told the committee Wednesday. The parties are scheduled to meet by July 31 to see if the system is acceptable to the state.

Thompson, R-Fairbanks, said while the House majority shares Walker’s concerns with the health of Alaskans, especially the most vulnerable ones, the hearings made clear “that Medicaid is a bigger problem than we knew.” It would be best to negotiate with the federal government on expansion terms after further study and hearing from consultants on reform strategies — and not prior just because federal money is available, he said.

While the bill includes provisions the administration would pursue aimed at reducing and containing costs within the program, Thompson said the bill lacked specifics. He cited concerns with adding potentially 20,000 to 40,000 people to a “broken” system.

Thompson was the only member who spoke during the brief hearing in Anchorage, which was streamed on the Internet and ended with Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, trying to speak. Gara said in an interview later that Thompson did not speak for the full committee.

Walker, in a statement, said he was disappointed by the committee’s actions. He said he would continue to work with the Legislature to advance Medicaid expansion and reform, “which is what an overwhelming majority of Alaskans want.”

His spokeswoman, Grace Jang, said by email that Walker “would prefer to pass Medicaid expansion through the legislature during this special session.” It’s not clear how that might happen; less than two weeks remain in the session and Senate Finance, which also has a version of Walker’s bill, hasn’t held a hearing. Members of the Senate’s Republican-led majority have expressed similar concerns to those voiced by Thompson on Thursday.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said the House Finance Committee’s action complicates budget negotiations.

Failure of the Legislature to pass a fully funded budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 helped prompt Walker to call a special session. In the House, support is needed from the Democratic-led minority to access a reserve account to cover budget costs at a time when the state is facing multibillion-dollar deficits amid low oil prices. Democrats have opposed proposed cuts to education funding, among other things, and Tuck previously said Medicaid expansion would be important to securing minority votes to authorize a draw from the reserve account.

On Thursday, Tuck said expansion remains an important issue. He said he has yet to hear from Republicans what other reforms they would like to see in order for them to support advancing expansion.

Medicaid comprises about 60 percent of the state health department budget and is a driver of Alaska’s operating budget. The administration has seen expansion as a way to leverage federal dollars to help finance efforts to reform the system and make it more sustainable.

For states accepting expansion, the federal government is to pay 100 percent of health care costs for newly eligible recipients through calendar year 2016, stepping down to 90 percent by 2020. The administration has said the federal match rate is comparable to that for transportation projects and that Alaska would not participate in expansion if the match rate fell below 90 percent.

More in News

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Earthquake Center provides information on a 5.1 magnitude earthquake that struck at approximately 8:18 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. The quake struck approximately 17 miles southeast of Redoubt volcano or 41 miles southwest of Kenai, Alaska, at a depth of 72.8 miles. (Screenshot)
Quake near Redoubt shakes peninsula

The quake was centered 41 miles southwest of Kenai.

From left, John Walsh, John Skelton and Pat Broaders perform at the annual Winter Concert of Traditional Irish Music at Kenai Peninsula College in Kenai, Alaska, on Jan. 24, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
Irish musicians return to peninsula

John Walsh, Pat Broaders and Brenda Castles will perform Friday

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with reporters during a news briefing on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Dunleavy said he doesn’t see his acceptance of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement as hurting his relationship with the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial last year and whom Trump has vowed to fight in her reelection bid. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer,File)
Dunleavy says work with Murkowski endures despite Trump nod

Trump last month praised Dunleavy and offered his endorsement, provided that Dunleavy does not endorse Murkowski

The Homer City Council asks Jan Keiser, Public Works Department director, questions about the Homer Green Infrastructure Management System during the Jan. 10, 2022, worksession. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Letting nature do what it does best

New green infrastructure project to solve drainage issues

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel and Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander speak at the Kenai City Council meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Due to COVID spike, state funds to be used to cover city administrative leave

COVID cases are up 38% from last week, and have risen significantly since mid-December.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce is photographed at the Kenai Peninsula Clarion office in Kenai, Alaska, on Sept. 25, 2020. (Peninsula Clarion file)
Pierce joins race for governor

The borough mayor notified local officials in an email Thursday

Laura Dewey’s art is on display at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Art of the wild

New Kenai visitor center show features the vivid colors of nature

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jan.19, 2022, in Washington. In a rebuff to former President Donald Trump, the Supreme Court is allowing the release of presidential documents sought by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
Supreme Court allows Jan. 6 committee to get Trump docs

Following the high court’s action, there is no legal impediment to turning over the documents

Most Read