Voices of Alaska: Bipartisan cooperation leads to results in health care policy

The Alaska Legislature ended its session May 12. With the final gavel falling, two years of the longest budgets fights between Alaskans in over a generation came to a close. Attention will deservedly be focused on the “big ticket” items this session brought: an operating budget that was completed before Memorial Day for the first time in nearly half a decade; prefunding education; and protection of our Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve from overdraws by future legislatures.

All legislative sessions have immeasurably more issues at play than there is room to report. That’s natural. But we would submit one outcome, in particular, over the last two years has been remarkable, and yet unnoticed: growing bipartisan working relationships on major issues facing our fellow Alaskan families.

Let’s be clear: we are both proud members of our respective parties. If we had our individual druthers, we would prefer the levers of the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion be held by folks from our own party. However, in 2016: the voters opted for a divided government, resulting in a largely Democratic controlled House of Representatives and a largely Republican controlled Senate.

In spite of what might appear to be irreconcilable differences, there were plenty of colleagues in both state chambers who recognized their neighbors sent them to do a job, not to make political excuses. There were plenty of big issues surrounding our state’s fiscal challenge to take the oxygen out of other important initiatives. But on many fronts, especially healthcare’s high costs, we made huge progress.

Alaska has some the highest healthcare costs in the nation, and the United States is one of the most expensive countries on earth to receive medical treatment. Health care cost growth is eating private, nonprofit and public sectors’ budgets up for both lunch and dinner. There is no simple way to reduce the punishing costs of healthcare on private businesses, local and state governments and nonprofits budgets, and increase meaningful access to treatments and providers that Alaskans expect. If there were, we would have fixed these problems years ago.

Instead, solutions to this complex issue come with patience and tenacity, chipping away an issue at a time. Each issue on its own appears insignificant but, taken together, they result in meaningful reforms. For the past two years our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate members, found occasion after occasion to put our swords aside and instead roll up our sleeves. And the results are real.

Alaska brought pharmacy management into the 21st century, protecting patients who need access to less expensive medicines and local pharmacists who faced coercive tactics from outside special interests benefitting from complex laws. The two-year waiting list for families to see a behavioral health provider will be shortened after reforming complex and needless regulations. Healthcare costs are going to be more transparent, so Alaskans will know what tests, visits to the provider, and procedures will cost before they receive them. More Alaskans will get critical eyecare, identifying preventable diseases before they become costly and irreparable. And Alaska finally is giving all workers statewide protections from second-hand smoke.

None of these needed reforms would have happened without the collaboration of Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate. We came together and agreed to put the people first. Our caucuses have battled fiercely on many issues, including on the healthcare front. But what is critical is that, when the call for the common good was needed, the overwhelming majority of the Legislature upheld their oath to the Constitution and looked after the public’s health. And that makes all the difference.

Senator Cathy Giessel is a Republican for East Anchorage and the Lower Hillside, and an Advanced Nurse Practitioner. Representative Ivy Spohnholz is a Democrat for East Anchorage, and an executive for nonprofit organizations.

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