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OPINION: Parnell refusal of Medicaid an expensive mistake for state

November 22nd, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

This week, Gov. Parnell officially turned down the expansion of Medicaid in Alaska, a decision that would have allowed more than 40,000 poor and uninsured Alaskans to get medical coverage.

According to two studies commissioned by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the expansion would have cost the state $90.7 million but would have resulted in $2.5 billion in additional economic activity and 4,000 new jobs. That's nearly twice the number of people employed full time in the mining industry last year.

The expansion came with a plethora of federal dollars, dollars that went further in Alaska than in virtually any state because Alaska already gets a large percentage of federal funds for those covered by Native health benefits. Approximately 17,000 of the 43,000 people who would have been approved by the expansion are already covered by Alaska Native government-subsidized health care.

The expansion would have provided coverage for people who didn't make enough to afford their own coverage, but weren't covered by Medicaid, such as single people or married couples without children. It would have covered, for example, a single person making less than approximately $20,000 a year or families of four making $40,000 or less.

But despite the analysis and facts found in the studies of the implications of accepting the expansion of Medicaid aid, Parnell and sympathetic Republicans he was possibly trying to please chose instead to answer to conjecture and fears with their decisions. They were afraid that the Obama administration's plan might fail, that it might leave the state holding a large bill in a couple of years and pull out federal funding for the program. They were afraid that the program wouldn't work.

"The decision comes down to this: can states trust the federal government to not cut and run on its share of the costs?" he asked in a press conference last week.

Parnell chose — on behalf of the state's poor and uninsured — to opt out of a tangible benefits based on fear of the unknown. If we applied that same strategy to other areas of the state, we'd have some interesting results. The Parnell administration certainly hasn't applied the same philosophy of better-safe-than-sorry to the Pebble Mine prospect and many other developments that have drawn concern from citizens worried about the potential impacts of those developments on the environment. The list could go on and on.

No, Parnell isn't really worried about anything except appearing like an Obama supporter, given his run for re-election is already heating up. You can pretty much assume that much of what he does from now on will be motivated by getting re-elected. Because it's pretty hard to argue that he is choosing this course of action for the benefit of the people of Alaska. I would challenge Parnell to pay his and his family's medical bills out of pocket for a year and see if he changes his tune. I'm guessing the reality that the uninsured face is going to feel a little different when it's not an ambiguous blob he can just brush aside based on political philosophy.

But on a positive note, the one thing Parnell's move did do is motivate a huge number of otherwise unaffiliated organizations into a single, angry, anti-Parnell mass. The emails flooded into newsroom mailboxes by the dozens after the governor's announcement. Everyone from the American Association of Retired People of Alaska to churches, Native organizations, Sen. Mark Begich and many more spoke out in opposition to the action. And of course, amid that chorus are many of those running against him in the upcoming election. Maybe Alaskans won't remember every twist and turn of the upcoming political debates that will decide who the state's next governor is. But my guess is the ones who are choking on the $250 bill for a single half-hour visit to the doctor will remember loud and clear. Talk about uncertainty. It's pretty hard to relax and be a productive, happy, economy-driving member of society when a single broken bone can put you in the poor house. And even those who are sitting pretty with some form of medical coverage should stop and consider how the loss of all those dollars will impact our state. What will be the impact of Parnell's choice in the years to come? Will people choose to move to a state where their families will be covered? Will we wind up with bigger bills overall in the long run?

We've got no crystal ball when it comes to the future of the Affordable Care Act, but one thing is for sure, Parnell's motives are crystal clear.


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