Senate Republicans Preview Medicaid Reform Bill

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Senator Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, previewed a bill he is planning to introduce this week to reform the current Medicaid system.  He said the bill won’t include a provision to expand Medicaid, he said during a press conference this morning. A group of Anchorage religious leaders and lay people are in Juneau to try to convince him and other skeptical lawmakers to change their minds on the issue.

Senator Kelly said his Medicaid reform bill will feature Health Savings Accounts. A portion of the permanent fund dividends of Medicaid recipients would go into the accounts to pay for costs that are considered unreasonable:

“If you got to an emergency room when you shouldn’t have, then that comes out of that Health Savings Account [and] if you self-refer to a specialist; if you use brand name drugs instead of a generic when they’re available, those kinds of abuses,” he said.

The bill will also include a provision for managed care, a system for controlling health costs by managing how patients use health care services, he said. Full details won’t be available until the bill is formally introduced later this week.

One thing Kelly’s bill won’t include is Medicaid expansion. He said that may come as a surprise to the Walker Administration. Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson did not respond to requests for an interview. Her department issued a short statement saying they will comment on the bill after they have a chance to review it.

Kelly said he thinks reform should happen before expansion. “It’s a broken system,” he said. “I think everyone agrees that Medicaid is broken. I think it’s been broken for 30 years. And now to expand it and put more money into it, to bring more people into it, that’s certainly not going to help its brokenness.”

Kelly will likely encounter a large group of Anchorage residents in Juneau early this week who will try to change his mind. They are from Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together- or AFACT, a federation that represents 15 congregations and 10,000 congregants.

Reverend Julia Seymour expects their diverse group of 14 representatives to stand out at the capital. She says their message is pretty simple:

“We’re about honesty,” she said.  “And the reality is that Medicaid expansion is an honest need for Alaskans, and religious and faithful people support that.”

Reverend Seymour says Medicaid expansion has been a priority for AFACT for at least three years. In 2013, the group started publishing a small booklet explaining the complicated issue to congregants. AFACT decided to send representatives to Juneau this session, because it’s the first time the legislature has seriously considered the issue. Reverend Seymour is a pastor at Lutheran Church of Hope in  Anchorage.

Reverend Seymour said they will meet with as many lawmakers as possible on both sides of the aisle. “We’re hoping that we will come back from Juneau smarter about this issue,” she said. “With more knowledge about what’s going on with Juneau with the concerns of both the majority and minority caucuses and with a clear understanding of what needs to be done… to get Medicaid expansion in Alaska.”

For Reverend Seymour, approving Medicaid expansion is the moral and ethical decision to make for the state’s future:

“It’s about the health of Alaskans,” she said. “Healthy Alaskans are productive Alaskans. Productive Alaskans enjoy the gifts of creation and we have excellent gifts of creation in this state.”

At the press conference, Senator Kelly said he didn’t think Medicaid expansion is a moral imperative. But he didn’t shut the door completely on the issue either. Kelly said this draft of the bill doesn’t include expansion, but talks on whether it – or another bill- should include it will continue for the rest of the session.

“I’m one person with one bill, so I think expansion and reform are discussions that are going on with 60 people in this building, 61 including the governor. My bill just doesn’t have expansion in it.”

Kelly’s Medicaid reform bill is tentatively scheduled to have its first hearing Friday. Reverend Seymour said when their members return to Anchorage they will regroup to consider their next steps and also pray for lawmakers to do their work.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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Annie Feidt is the Editor and Producer of Alaska News Nightly, and is also a frequent contributor to the show. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace. Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49thstate just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon. afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie