ANCHORAGE (CN) – An Alaska judge on Friday denied state lawmakers’ request to stop Gov. Bill Walker from giving 20,000 people expanded access to Medicaid without permission from the Legislature.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner ruled that Walker’s Medicaid expansion can begin on Sept. 1 until the merits of the Legislative Council’s case challenging the governor’s authority to expand Medicaid on his own are decided.
Pfiffner heard 90 minutes of oral arguments Thursday.
The Legislative Council voted 10-1 this month to pay attorneys $450,000 to sue the governor. Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, was the only dissenting vote.
Pfiffner’s ruling means an extra 20,000 Alaskans will be eligible for expanded medical coverage under Obamacare, according to the Juneau Empire newspaper estimates.
Assistant Attorney General Dario Borghesan told Pfiffner that the governor acted to protect citizens’ health.
But the Legislative Council’s attorney Erin Murphy, of Washington, D.C.-based Bancroft PLLC, told the judge the case wasn’t an issue of public health, but of separation of powers.
The Alaska Legislative Council is a standing committee of seven members from each house, which handles state business when the Legislature is not in session. It sued Walker and Health and Social Services Director Valerie Davidson on Aug. 24 in Superior Court, claiming it has sole authority over decisions on Medicaid eligibility.
“The governor’s attempt to unilaterally opt Alaska into Medicaid expansion would violate the 2015 appropriation bill and the separation of powers that the Alaska Constitution mandates,” the complaint states.
It also claims that “the governor’s actions could result in an administrative nightmare in which providers are billing Alaska’s Medicaid program patients and care that it does not cover.”
The lawsuit is one of many challenges of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, also known as Obamacare. Alaska’s 60-member bicameral Legislature has 37 Republicans, 21 Democrats and an independent.
According to its lawsuit, the Legislative Council objects to the governor’s attempt to take advantage of the so-called “Medicaid expansion” provided by Obamacare, which allows state to get federal money to “fund medical assistance to certain qualifying low-income individuals.”
“Although Congress offers the state the option of covering additional individuals and receiving federal funding for doing so, it does not require participating states to cover those optional groups in order to remain eligible to participate in Medicaid or receive federal funds,” the complaint states.
Alaska calls Medicaid coverage either mandatory or optional. For “all residents of the state for whom the Social Security Act requires Medicaid coverage,” Alaska offers mandatory coverage, while for those “groups or persons for whom the state may claim federal financial participation,” coverage is optional. Alaska has a list of 15 groups for whom Medicaid coverage is optional.
Walker filed House Bill No. 148 in March, to modify the state’s eligibility and satisfy federal requirements for medical assistance coverage.
House Bill 148 would qualify “persons who are under 65 years of age, who are not pregnant, whose household income does not exceed 138 percent of the federal poverty line, including the 5 percent income disregard.”
The bill died in the House Finance Committee because it “does not address a plan to move forward, only an acceptance of twenty to forty thousand more people into a system that has been acknowledged as broken,” Rep. Steve Thompson said in prepared remarks. Thompson, R-Fairbanks, is co-chairman of the Finance Committee.
Walker in July said he planned “to begin enrolling Alaska residents who fall within Medicaid expansion population,” despite the bill’s death in committee, the lawsuit states.
The governor was elected as an Independent in 2014, with support from Democrats. He failed to win the Republican primary in 2010 when he sought the party’s nomination for governor.
Now he’s taken on his former party members, saying, “At a time when the state is facing a $3.5 billion deficit, 10 legislators chose to spend $450,000 to hire an outside law firm to block what more than 60 percent of Alaskans want.”
“They chose to sue to prevent $145 million in federal dollars from being injected into our economy to provide lifesaving care for our fellow Alaskans.”
In answer to Judge Pfiffner’s question “Why can’t the governor act for at least 2016?” Murphy responded that it’s a question of legislative privilege, that the governor cannot expand Medicaid to “optional” classes of people.
The Legislative Council seeks an injunction to stop Walker from violating Alaska Statute § 47.07.02(a) and (d), which call Medicaid coverage optional, and for violating the state’s separation of powers.
The council’s lead attorney is Timothy McKeever, with Holmes Weddle & Barcott, of Anchorage.
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