Battle Over Medicaid Spills Onto Capital Steps

Gov. Bill Walker, I-Alaska, during a Medicaid expansion rally at the State Capitol, April 16, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Gov. Bill Walker, I-Alaska, during a Medicaid expansion rally at the State Capitol, April 16, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Governor Bill Walker spoke at a rally today in favor of Medicaid expansion outside the Capital Building in Juneau. The event, sponsored by the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, is another strategy from proponents of Medicaid expansion to get lawmakers to bring the issue to a vote in the Legislature.

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Standing on the capital steps in sporadic drizzle, Annika Ord of Juneau said that as a recent college graduate she falls into the coverage “donut hole” for health insurance.

“Medicaid expansion would help young people like myself who want to getting their financial feet on the ground, and want to live and work here in Alaska,” Ord said, before issuing a very modern political call to arms: “Snap a picture, text it, tweet it, Facebook it—do the social media thing. And let’s get this bill to the floor for a vote.”

That prompted many of the hundred or so rally attendees, along with a handful of democratic lawmakers, to begin snapping selfies with their phones.

Governor Bill Walker told the crowd expanded healthcare coverage is both an economic and moral necessity for the state.

“Multiple polls show overwhelming support for expanded Medicaid. Healthcare is not a partisan issue, it’s an Alaskan issue, and we’re going to accept it,” Walker said over growing applause.

But Republicans lawmakers say the state isn’t ready, and that there is no use expanding Medicaid when the state’s current version of the healthcare system is not working.

“To throw another 20,000-plus people into a system that is already not functioning properly could really hurt the state a lot,” said Representative Steven Thompson, a Republican from Fairbanks, during a majority press briefing earlier in the day. “We need to be careful that we have things that are going to work before we start adding 20,000 to 40,000 people to a system that’s already broken.”

Thompson doesn’t believe the issue will not come to a vote this session. But Governor Walker says he will call back the Legislature if the expansion plan doesn’t come to pass.

Juneau resident Pat Sidmore attended the rally, and thinks the politics are obscuring the very real need to give health coverage to more low income Alaskans.

“My sign said that ‘when elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers,’” Sidmore said. “We have a unified government: a Republican governor, a Republican legislature, that’s the elephant symbol, and they’re fighting over this thing, and people are getting hurt.”

After his rally speech, the crowd of supporters started singing Walker “Happy Birthday.” He turned 64.

Alexandra Gutierrez contributed reporting to this article.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a line suggesting the Governor’s Administration helped organize the rally.