Judge hears arguments in Medicaid expansion case

JUNEAU — A state court judge in Anchorage heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit challenging Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s authority to expand Medicaid without legislative approval.

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner said it was unlikely that he could issue a decision before the end of March.

Any decision he renders can be appealed.

The case was brought by the Legislative Council, which is comprised of state House and Senate lawmakers, all but one of whom belongs to the Republican-led majorities. Supporters of the lawsuit see it as a separation of powers issue.

Some opponents see it as counterproductive and a waste of money.

A key argument in the case centers on whether the expansion population is a mandatory group for coverage under Medicaid or an optional group.

The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld most of the law.

But it also found that states cannot lose existing Medicaid funding if they don’t expand Medicaid coverage.

The lawsuit contends that Walker overstepped his authority in expanding Medicaid on his own last year. It argues the expansion population is an optional group that cannot be covered unless approved by the Legislature.

The lawsuit is “not some effort to subvert the process. What subverted the process is taking the power away from the Legislature and doing this unilaterally,” said Erin Murphy, an attorney for the council who argued before Pfiffner Thursday.

Assistant state attorney general Dario Borghesan, who argued on Walker’s behalf, said the Medicaid expansion is required.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision did not strike down the provision expanding eligibility but instead limited the federal government’s ability to enforce that requirement, he said.

In expanding Medicaid, Walker followed a process for seeking to spend more in federal or other funds on a budget item than allocated by the Legislature. He acted after legislators tabled expansion — one of his priorities — for further review.

The expanded program launched Sept. 1, and as of the end of 2015, about 8,000 Alaskans had enrolled. The lawsuit seeks to have Medicaid expansion without legislative approval declared unconstitutional.

It’s unclear how things would play out should the Legislative Council prevail.

“It would probably stress those who have already signed up, that is for sure,” said Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, a leading voice in support of the council suit. He thinks legislators would have to have a vote on expansion and that it would force a conversation on next steps.

“I think there are many people in the Legislature that would go along with the Medicaid expansion as long as we had the reforms,” Coghill said Wednesday.

Legislators already have begun hearings on bills aimed at curbing and containing Medicaid costs. Medicaid reform is one of the stated priorities of the Senate majority.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, a council member who voted against the lawsuit, said Wednesday that he thinks it is “all about making a statement rather than doing the right thing for the state of Alaska.” Medicaid expansion is a positive, Kito said.

Lawsuits have been filed in at least two other states over expansion.

In Ohio, expansion was upheld. Litigation is still pending in Arizona.

The legislative session is scheduled to end April 17.

More in News

Drummers perform during a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Friday, July 12, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenaitze tribe celebrates 10 years of ‘far-fetched dream’ at wellness center

Community members recognized the work done at the Dena’ina Wellness Center over the past decade

The Kenai Safeway is seen on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai and Soldotna Safeways may be sold under proposed Kroger-Albertsons merger

The local stores will be sold to CS Wholesale Grocers only if the merger overcomes suit from the FTC

Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet are dragged up onto the beach at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Draft plan published for disbursement of $11.5 million in 2021 and 2022 ESSN disasters

Public comment will be accepted for the draft spend plan until July 24

The Kasilof River is seen from the Kasilof River Recreation Area, July 30, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)
King salmon fishing closed on Kasilof starting Monday

The emergency order is being issued to protect returning king salmon, citing weak returns

Soldotna City Hall is seen on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna’s city council appropriates funds for FY 2025 capital projects

Improvements are described for streets, police facility, Soldotna Creek Park and Soldotna Community Memorial Park

Gina Plank processes sockeye salmon caught on the first day of Kenai River dipnetting with her table set up on the bank of the Kenai River in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai River open for dipnetting

As of Tuesday, a total of 226,000 sockeye had been counted in the Kenai River’s late run

Assembly Vice President Tyson Cox speaks during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly won’t pursue further discussion on tabled bed tax resolution

Members say they’re going to work on a new version of the idea this winter

Gov. Mike Dunleavy pictured with members of the House majority after signing the fiscal year 2025 budget bills, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Anchorage, Alaska. From left to right: Reps. Stanley Wright, Tom McKay, Thomas Baker, Craig Johnson, Kevin McCabe, Julie Coulombe and Laddie Shaw. (Photo provided by Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy signs capital budget with $3.7M in state funding for Kenai Peninsula, vetoes $3.3M

Roughly $90 million in federal funding also allocated to Kenai Peninsula

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Soldotna man arrested Friday after 30-minute police chase

The man had an outstanding warrant for felony probation violation

Most Read