Alaska Chamber makes Medicaid expansion a priority

United States map indicating which states are expanding Medicaid coverage in 2014. Blue indicates states which are expanding Medicaid, red indicates states which are not, and gray indicates states that are still debating expansion as of July 2013. (Wikipedia Commons)

United States map indicating which states are expanding Medicaid coverage in 2014. Blue indicates states which are expanding Medicaid, red indicates states which are not, and gray indicates states that are still debating expansion as of July 2013. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce has adopted Medicaid expansion as one of its top state legislative priorities. Governor Parnell has expressed reservations about accepting federal funding to allow more Alaskans to qualify for Medicaid. But supporters of the expansion hope the endorsement from the influential Chamber will convince the Governor and Republican lawmakers that it’s good for the state.

Chamber members gathered in Fairbanks last week for the group’s annual policy forum. They made Medicaid expansion a priority along with four other issues to focus on during the state legislative session that begins in January. Rachel Petro is President of the Alaska Chamber.

“The Alaska Chamber members support Medicaid expansion, with caveats. So essentially our members support Medicaid expansion as long as the federal funding commitment is maintained.”

The Federal Government is paying for 100% of the expansion in the first three years, with the funding level gradually dropping to 90%, where the law says it must remain. The expansion would offer health care coverage to at least 40,000 low income Alaskans. A study commissioned by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium shows it would also create about 4,000 jobs and bring one billion dollars to the state economy over the next seven years. Petro says Chamber members will be paying taxes designed to fund the Affordable Care Act:

“So if Alaska doesn’t expand our Medicaid program, the taxes Alaska businesses pay, those tax dollars will go to fund Medicaid expansion in other states. So essentially Alaska businesses and individuals will be paying for the care for the uninsured in other states rather than in Alaska.”

Petro says the Chamber has a strong track record with legislation. She says 24 of the 34 bills the group supported last year ended up passing.

Alaska State Senator Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from Anchorage, will be making the case for the expansion during next year’s legislative session. He calls the chamber’s Medicaid expansion priority a major development:

“When you take a step back and remove the politics from it, I think it’s good for Alaska. And I think the business community recognizes that.”

Wielechowski says the Chamber’s new priority will make it much easier to pass legislation approving Medicaid expansion during the session:

“I think this could put us over the top. I think this is something that could really provide a good solid push to move the Governor in that direction. I think this is a very, very positive development.”

The Medicaid expansion priority didn’t have universal support from Chamber members. Jack Wilbur is President of Design Alaska and on the Chamber’s board of directors. He agrees that the state should expand Medicaid, but doesn’t think it deserves to be a Chamber priority. Wilbur says hospitals and other health care interests made a strong showing at last week’s meeting:

“It’s an age old thing, you show up, you get the vote, you don’t show up, you don’t get the vote.”

Still, Wilbur says the group’s top priorities get a lot of attention from chamber staff and tend to have a lot of sway in the legislature:

“The Alaska Chamber is a very influential voice of Alaska business. And legislators listen to what the Alaska chamber has to say.”

The Alaska Chamber’s other state legislative priorities include opposing the repeal of Governor Parnell’s new oil tax law and workers compensation reform.

This story is part of a reporting partnership with APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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