With a bipartisan vote, the Alaska House has approved a wide-ranging reform of the state’s government-run health care system.
Senate Bill 74, which includes a variety of fraud-busting and cost-saving measures, passed the House 33-6 late Friday. The bill has already been approved by the Senate and will return to that body for a largely pro forma vote to agree with changes made in the House.
If the Senate agrees with the House changes, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Bill Walker, who is expected to sign it.
“I think this bill and the corrections bill, if we can get it through, will be some of the brightest spots” of the Legislative session, said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage.
According to estimates provided by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the bill will save $31.7 million in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. As more provisions of the bill become effective, the savings are expected to rise in subsequent years.
Some of the savings will result from the increased use of telemedicine in rural areas.
“Within this bill, we’re finally as a state embracing telemedicine, and that’s what excites me most,” said Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla.
Also included its provisions are measures to reduce the use of emergency rooms for primary care, items to reduce fraud and overpayments, and a prescription database to limit the abuse of prescription drugs.
That last item was the driving force behind all six votes against the bill. Lawmakers who voted against SB 74 said they view the establishment of a mandatory database as government overreach.
“I think it is a huge invasion of our right to privacy,” said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said the bill’s complexity is a problem.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here who can tell us what’s going to happen once this bill is enacted,” he said. “This bill puts a mountain more of government into people’s lives.”
To critics of the prescription database, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, responded with a fiery speech declaiming lawmakers who talk tough about fighting opiate abuse but fail to take action.
The database is intended to prevent people from going doctor to doctor, getting many pill prescriptions to feed an addiction.
He referenced the nationwide epidemic of prescription opioid abuse, which has led to a surge in heroin abuse and heroin deaths.
“Maybe they died with their privacy intact, but how private was their life when their dead body is on the front page of the newspaper?” he said.
After his speech, which came before the final vote, House members defeated an amendment that would have made the drug database optional instead of mandatory.
Timber bill passes House
Also Friday, the House voted 31-5 in approval of Senate Bill 32, which expands the ability of the Alaska Department of Forestry to contract directly with a sawmill on a timber sale in a state forest.
The bill, proposed by the governor, is envisioned as a helping hand to Viking Lumber, the last midsized sawmill in Southeast Alaska.
Viking normally relies on federal timber sales, but there will not be enough timber from federal sales in the next few years to keep the sawmill operating. By selling directly to Viking, state forester Chris Maisch told lawmakers earlier this month, the state will keep the Prince of Wales Island sawmill operating, but Alaska will receive about 20 percent to 33 percent less revenue with a direct sale than it would in a competitive sale, which is the normal process for a timber sale.
The bill passed the Senate 20-0 last year and will return to the Senate for a concurrence vote on changes made in the House.
Lawmakers demand regional regents
In the Senate, lawmakers voted 14-6 in favor of a plan to select members of the University of Alaska Board of Regents by geographical region.
House Bill 107, approved 26-13 in the House last year, requires the University of Alaska’s governing body to include one resident each from Fairbanks, Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula, Juneau and a non-road-system community.
A student and four at-large members are also included in the board’s roster.
The only existing restrictions on the board’s membership are that each member must be a U.S. citizen and an Alaska resident. A dedicated student seat also exists.
The bill returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote.
House angry about frankenfish
Representatives in the House voted unanimously 35-0 on Friday night to approve House Joint Resolution 28, a letter scorning the development of a genetically engineered salmon and asking Congress to require the labeling of genetically modified food.
As a resolution, HJR 28 lacks the legally binding power of a bill. It is effectively a sternly worded letter and message of intent. The measure advances to the Senate for consideration.
Other actions Friday in the House and Senate:
House Bill 8, which deals with financial powers of attorney, was approved 20-0 by the Senate. The bill, which returns to the House for a concurrence vote before advancing to the governor, requires changes to the powers of attorney form in Alaska.
House Concurrent Resolution 4, giving instructions to Alaska’s delegates to a U.S. Constitutional Convention ─ if one is called ─ passed the Senate 15-5. The measure now goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Walker. A partnering measure, House Joint Resolution 14, was not taken up by the Senate on Friday. HJR 14 states Alaska’s support for a U.S. Constitutional Convention whose delegates would be bound by HCR 4.
In the House, lawmakers approved two Senate measures limiting public assistance. SB 145, approved in a 35-0 vote, allows the state to dock the Permanent Fund Dividend payments of a person who is accidentally overpaid by the state’s public assistance programs. Docking the dividend allows the state to collect a repayment from a person who may not be willing to repay the state otherwise. SB 147, proposed by the governor, was also approved 35-0. The bill requires that anyone who receives a senior citizen benefit be a U.S. citizen or legal alien. Both measures advance to the governor’s desk for signature.
House Concurrent Resolution 30, suspending some of the rules of the House to ease the passage of the Medicaid reform bill, was approved 35-1.
House Bill 200, approved in the House 35-0, speeds the adoption process for a person seeking to adopt a child in the state’s foster care system. The bill advances to the Senate.
Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com.