Voices of Alaska: Treating the dignity deficit

  • By Sen. Pete Kelly
  • Wednesday, March 7, 2018 10:05am
  • Opinion

Here’s the question: should Alaskans who receive Medicaid be required to work or volunteer as a condition of their benefits?

I believe so, and two weeks ago I introduced SB 193 which would require Medicaid recipients to engage with their community through employment, volunteerism or subsistence activities.

First, the facts: SB193 does not require new mothers, the elderly or the disabled to seek employment. We reviewed proposed Medicaid work requirements from other states and crafted our exemptions to ensure that the Medicaid safety net continues to work for those who need it most.

In pursuing a work requirement, Alaska would join 10 other states already moving forward with similar efforts. SB193 carefully carves out exceptions for our most vulnerable and provides exemptions for job training, serious students, caregivers and more. With Alaska’s uniqueness in mind, we included a work credit for subsistence activities as well.

Many of the 196,000 Alaskans on Medicaid already work, and some of those who do not are covered by one of the bill’s exemptions for education or caregiver activities. Senate Bill 193 is crafted to apply to a narrow band of Medicaid users: those who could work, but choose not to.

Like all of us, Alaskans on Medicaid have dreams for a better life. When plans don’t work out and setbacks occur, it’s easy to lose heart and stay where it is most comfortable – receiving government benefits.

But a life of government dependency can be isolating and unfulfilling. People grow when they plug into a larger community – they need to belong. Beyond the dignity of productivity, work opens doors to a larger community of friends and associates. Work provides us with a reason to step out the door in the morning and stand side by side with our fellow Alaskans making our state a better place.

Detractors say the idea that work has inherent dignity is old-fashioned and has no place in modern public policy debate. I disagree. American public discourse has always held certain truths to be self-evident. The value and dignity of work as one of these truths is foundational to our nation’s success.

Engaging in the workplace or volunteering for a non-profit allows everyone the opportunity to earn a reputation for reliability, gain new skills and develop valuable networks.

Some observers will assume that a work requirement for Medicaid is about saving money. While savings would be welcome, they are not the primary motivation nor are they likely to materialize in a meaningful way. In fact, I anticipate modest costs to implement and enforce the work requirement.

That’s right, I am willing to spend some money if that’s what it takes to help Alaskans move away from the debilitating effects of dependency and forward towards self-sufficiency. We’ve spent billions on dependency – I’m willing to spend a small fraction of that to encourage Alaskans on a path toward independence.

It is rare in politics to find a win-win policy. So often it seems new proposals just take from one hand to give to the other. By contrast, a Medicaid work requirement benefits everyone. It increases the pool of volunteers Alaska non-profits need to serve our most vulnerable and it encourages able Alaskans to move towards education and job experience ­– the surest way off a treadmill of dependency and onto the road towards independence.

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Republican from Fairbanks, is President of the Alaska Senate.

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