State Hires Project Lead for Medicaid Expansion

The Department of Health and Social Services has created a new position to help the state work toward the goal of expanding Medicaid.

The job is “Medicaid expansion project director” and it’s being filled by Chris Ashenbrenner, who spent two decades working for the department and came out of retirement to take on this challenge.

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Ashenbrenner has been on the job only a few weeks, but her desk in Juneau is already covered with post-it note reminders and piles of paper. Those piles will help Ashenbrenner with the challenging task of coordinating the state’s plan for expanding Medicaid.

Ashenbrenner has a lot of experience with federal health policy in Alaska. She was director of the division of public assistance when she retired in 2009 and helped carry out welfare reform and start Alaska’s Denali KidCare program- the Medicaid program for kids.

She says helping the state expand Medicaid is the only job she can imagine coming out of retirement for:

“I saw such great need for people to get healthy,” Ashenbrenner said. “Be able to get health services and be healthy in order to really lead them to be able to support themselves and their families. It’s such a barrier.”

Ashenbrenner hopes the state can expand Medicaid next summer.  But a lot has to happen to make it work. Ashenbrenner has to identify costs, make sure the right systems are in place and work with the community and lawmakers to come up with a plan that will work for Alaska.

She recognizes the plunging price of oil and the state’s growing budget deficit could stymie Medicaid expansion. But she’s confident Alaska can come up with a proposal that offsets any costs of the program. She says Alaska has the advantage of building off the experience of other states like Wyoming and Utah:

“Both of those states have said they can do expansion without spending any new money and that’s the kind of plan we’re looking toward being able to develop,” Ashenbrenner said.

The department faces a big technical hurdle before Medicaid expansion can work. The systems for Medicaid enrollment and payment aren’t functioning properly. But Ashenbrenner thinks those problems can be resolved by the summer.

The federal government is offering a team of people to help Alaska work through any challenges. And within the state, Ashenbrenner says there’s an encouraging amount of enthusiasm and support:

“From community groups, from people inside the department, people inside the department, really excited about the possibility of getting this up and going and so that feels really good,” she said.

Ashenbrenner’s position is a temporary one. She’ll resume her retirement when expansion is complete. At first she was hopeful that would be in time for king salmon fishing. Now, she thinks moose hunting season is more realistic.