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Alaska Legislature Votes to Sue Governor for Expanding Medicaid

The Alaska Legislature on Tuesday said it would sue Gov. Bill Walker to block his move last month to expand the public Medicaid health-care program without lawmakers' approval.

By Nathaniel Herz

The Alaska Legislature on Tuesday said it would sue Gov. Bill Walker to block his move last month to expand the public Medicaid health-care program without lawmakers' approval.

Following a closed-door discussion Tuesday morning, a Republican-controlled House-Senate committee voted 10-1 to authorize spending up to $450,000 on a pair of law firms to work on the case.

One, Bancroft PLLC, is based in Washington, D.C. and represented more than two dozen states in their U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

The second, Holmes, Weddle & Barcott, is based in Anchorage.

Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, made Medicaid expansion one of his key campaign promises when he ran for governor last year with support from the Democratic Party.

His administration says the expansion would make some 40,000 low-income residents newly eligible for health care and actually reduce Alaska's budget by replacing state money with federal funding.

But during their legislative session earlier this year, Republican leaders in the House and Senate set aside measures submitted by Walker to expand Medicaid. They wouldn't bring legislation to a vote, citing concerns about the reliability of federal funding and the addition of recipients to a costly program when the state faces big deficits.

Walker announced last month that he would expand the program unilaterally using his executive authority to accept federal money. He said he would use a committee process outlined in state law that allows the Legislature to make recommendations on his decision, but not to block it outright.

The expansion was set to take effect Sept. 1.

The decision to sue was made Tuesday by the Legislative Council, which handles business and budgets for the Legislature when all 60 members aren't in session.

During the committee's meeting, all the members of the Republican-led majority caucuses that were present voted against the committee's lone member of the Democratic minority, Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III.

Two Republican senators from coastal communities typically seen as more moderate, Gary Stevens of Kodiak and Peter Micciche of Soldotna, were absent, as was Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, who belongs to the Senate's Republican majority.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, also missed the meeting -- he was in Minnesota undergoing medical treatment but said by email that he would have voted against hiring the law firms.

In a news conference after the committee vote, Republican leaders framed their decision to challenge the governor as a constitutional one. They're seeking an injunction to stop Medicaid expansion before it goes into effect.

"This is not a policy issue -- we're not discussing whether we should or shouldn't expand Medicaid," said Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. "This is a question of authority and process and our constitution."

Asked about the impact of their decision on Alaskans without access to health care, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, responded: "They have access to health care."

"It's just more costly, and there are other ways they can get health care," he added.

In a hastily called news conference afterward, Walker called the Legislature's move "totally unacceptable," adding that the the decision "makes no sense at all to me." And he suggested lawmakers' opposition was political.

"I cannot fathom why suing to take away health care coverage of working Alaskans is a partisan issue," he said.

Walker estimated that the lawsuit would cost the state $1 million based on the anticipated cost for legal work necessary to defend the expansion.

(c)2015 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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