States Rights

Alaska Supreme Court won't block Medicaid expansion

Thousands of lower-income Alaskans will become eligible for Medicaid after the Alaska Supreme Court on Monday refused to temporarily block the state from expanding the health care program.

The win capped a big day for Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who earlier flew with President Barack Obama from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage.

"The Alaska Supreme Court's ruling today brings final assurance that thousands of working Alaskans will have access to health care tomorrow," Walker said in a statement issued Monday evening.

Walker earlier this summer announced plans to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage after state legislators tabled his expansion legislation for further review.

The Legislative Council, acting on behalf of lawmakers, sued to stop expansion.

Thirty other states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid, or plan to do so, to include all adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

The federal government agreed to pay all costs for the new enrollees through 2016, but it will begin lowering its share in 2017. States will pay 10 percent of the costs by 2020.

Some Alaska legislators have expressed concern with adding more people to a system they consider broken. Administration officials have acknowledged the current Medicaid program isn't sustainable, but they see expansion as a way to get federal dollars to help finance reform efforts.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner denied the request from lawmakers to halt expansion while a lawsuit moves forward. The Alaska Supreme Court on Monday agreed, saying lawyers for the lawmakers failed to show Pfiffner erred when denying the motion for a preliminary injunction.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said expansion will go on as planned Tuesday.

"Ultimately, the Legislative Council could not show any real harm from allowing the program to move forward, and the court upheld the well-reasoned decision of Judge Pfiffner," said a statement from the Department of Law.

"Hopefully, this convinces the Legislative Council that resources would be better spent working together towards the common goal of reform, instead of spending money on lawsuits," the statement said.

A message left with lawyers for the Legislative Council was not immediately returned. Their office was closed Monday because of security and its proximity to the global warming conference in downtown Anchorage that featured Obama as the closing speaker.

However, they have previously argued the state could face irreparable fiscal injury if expanded Medicaid takes effect Tuesday. They also said it could create an administrative nightmare if expanded coverage begins and is later determined unlawful.

Pfiffner only focused on the preliminary junction in his Friday ruling, but also indicated that in his preliminary view, the state would win on the broader lawsuit as well.

Walker has said nearly 20,000 working Alaskans will have access to health care under expansion. State-commissioned estimates released earlier this year indicate that nearly 42,000 Alaskans would be eligible for coverage under expanded Medicaid the first year and about 20,000 would enroll.