Alaska judge hears arguments in Medicaid expansion suit

JUNEAU — A state court judge in Anchorage heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit challenging Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s authority to expand Medicaid without legislative approval.

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner said it was unlikely that he could issue a decision before the end of March. Any decision he renders can be appealed.

The case was brought by the Legislative Council, which is comprised of state House and Senate lawmakers, all but one of whom belongs to the Republican-led majorities. Supporters of the lawsuit see it as a separation of powers issue. Some opponents see it as counterproductive and a waste of money.

A key argument in the case centers on whether the expansion population is a mandatory group for coverage under Medicaid or an optional group.

The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld most of the law. But it also found that states cannot lose existing Medicaid funding if they don’t expand Medicaid coverage.

The lawsuit contends that Walker overstepped his authority in expanding Medicaid on his own last year. It argues the expansion population is an optional group that cannot be covered unless approved by the Legislature.

The lawsuit is “not some effort to subvert the process. What subverted the process is taking the power away from the Legislature and doing this unilaterally,” said Erin Murphy, an attorney for the council who argued before Pfiffner Thursday.

Assistant state attorney general Dario Borghesan, who argued on Walker’s behalf, said the Medicaid expansion is required. The U.S. Supreme Court decision did not strike down the provision expanding eligibility but instead limited the federal government’s ability to enforce that requirement, he said.

In expanding Medicaid, Walker followed a process for seeking to spend more in federal or other funds on a budget item than allocated by the Legislature. He acted after legislators tabled expansion — one of his priorities — for further review.

The expanded program launched Sept. 1, and as of the end of 2015, about 8,000 Alaskans had enrolled. The lawsuit seeks to have Medicaid expansion without legislative approval declared unconstitutional.

It’s unclear how things would play out should the Legislative Council prevail.

“It would probably stress those who have already signed up, that is for sure,” said Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, a leading voice in support of the council suit. He thinks legislators would have to have a vote on expansion and that it would force a conversation on next steps.

“I think there are many people in the Legislature that would go along with the Medicaid expansion as long as we had the reforms,” Coghill said Wednesday.

Legislators already have begun hearings on bills aimed at curbing and containing Medicaid costs. Medicaid reform is one of the stated priorities of the Senate majority.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, a council member who voted against the lawsuit, said Wednesday that he thinks it is “all about making a statement rather than doing the right thing for the state of Alaska.” Medicaid expansion is a positive, Kito said.

Lawsuits have been filed in at least two other states over expansion. In Ohio, expansion was upheld. Litigation is still pending in Arizona.

The legislative session is scheduled to end April 17.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of May 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Wreath bearers present wreaths for fallen comrades, brothers and sisters in arms during a Memorial Day ceremony at Alaskan Memorial Park on Monday. Laying wreaths on the graves of fallen heroes is a way to honor and remember the sacrifices made. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
Traditional Memorial Day ceremonies offer new ways to ‘never forget’ those who served

New installations at memorial sites, fresh words of reminder shared by hundreds gathering in Juneau.

Thunder Mountain High School graduates celebrate after moving their tassels to the left, their newly received diplomas in hand, at the end of Sunday’s commencement ceremony. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
‘Forever a Falcon’: Thunder Mountain High School celebrates final graduating class

147 seniors get soaring sendoff during 16th annual commencement full of heightened emotions.

Seniors at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé enter the gymnasium for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
JDHS graduates celebrate journey from virtual ‘pajama class’ freshmen to virtuous camaraderie

Resolve in overcoming struggles a lifelong lesson for future, seniors told at commencement ceremony.

Sierra Guerro-Flores (right) listens to her advisor Electra Gardinier after being presented with her diploma at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduation ceremony Sunday in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Alternatives are vast for Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduating class

31 students take center stage during ceremony revisiting their paths at the school and what’s next.

The LeConte state ferry in 2023. (Lex Treinen / Chilkat Valley News)
Stranded Beerfest travelers scramble to rebook after LeConte ferry breakdown

Loss of 225-passenger ferry leaves many Juneau-bound revelers looking for other ways home.

A photo taken from the terminal roof shows the extent of the first phase of paving to accommodate large aircraft. (Mike Greene / City and Borough of Juneau)
Large-scale repaving project plants itself at Juneau International Airport

Work may take two to three years, schedule seeks to limit impact on operations.

Capital Transit buses wait to depart from the downtown transit center on Thursday. Route number 8 was adjusted this spring. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
More service, visitor information helping Capital Transit to keep up with extra cruise passenger traffic

Remedies made after residents unable to board full buses last year seem to be working, officials say

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, May 23, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read