Walker: Medicaid benefits Alaska in many ways

Expansion helps more than 44,000 Alaskans

Gov. Bill Walker delivers his fourth State of the State address in Juneau. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office
January, 2018 photo. Gov. Bill Walker delivers his fourth State of the State address in Juneau. (Photo courtesy of the governor’s office)

This month marks the third anniversary since I took executive action to expand Medicaid in Alaska. It opened the door to health care for more than 44,000 Alaskans, a critical improvement for our health and economy.

Alaskans around the state have shared their stories with me about receiving necessary care as a direct result of Medicaid expansion. Working on the slope, fishing, logging, construction, subsistence – hard work is an Alaskan value, but it can take a toll. Countless hardworking Alaskans have told me about being able to return to work because expansion helped them get the care they needed. Stories about cancer detection and treatment, medications for chronic diseases, and treatment for addiction – these are real lives and the real motivation behind my decision to expand access to health care.

No Alaskan wants to be sick or injured. No Alaskan should have to choose between taking their partner to the doctor or paying their rent. Medicaid coverage enables Alaskans to get the care they need to stay in, or return, to the workforce. It decreases medical costs for all of us, by making sure people who need care have a reliable, affordable option. They don’t have to delay getting care until they are in such poor condition that treatment is absolutely necessary ­– but impossibly expensive. We all benefit by making sure Alaskans have access to preventative care, instead of relying on emergency treatment that bankrupts families before passing those costs on to the rest of us. Medicaid expansion is also a critical component in addressing Alaska’s opioid epidemic. It has covered more than $73 million in behavioral health services, providing essential help for addiction, which has touched far too many of our family members, friends and neighbors’ lives.

Medicaid expansion also makes economic sense – especially in light of Alaska’s fiscal crisis for the last four years. Medicaid expansion brought federal dollars to Alaska when we most needed an economic boost. Since Sept. 1, 2015, Medicaid expansion has paid nearly $1 billion into Alaska’s health care industry. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, some of the 800 new Alaska health care jobs created in 2017 are due to the expansion. At a time when other Alaska industries experienced significant job loss, Medicaid expansion made health care one of Alaska’s fastest growing industries.

Along with bringing money in, expansion has also saved money going out. Alaska has saved close to $16 million because of expansion. It opened the door to federal match funding of at least 90 percent for programs that were previously funded entirely with state general fund dollars.

Despite strong political opposition, even a lawsuit to block expansion from Senate Majority, thousands of Alaskans and more than 150 organizations stood together to support our efforts to expand Medicaid, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Mat-Su Borough Assembly, Alaska AFL-CIO, and the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation. It was clear to all of us that partisan politics was not a worthwhile reason to deny thousands of Alaskans health care, at the expense of their financial security, our economy, and other working Alaskans.

Expanding Medicaid was not a political decision for me: I was born and raised in a state that taught me self-determination and strength are essential for success. And after a lifetime of living here, I’ve learned those qualities are most valuable when employed in the service of others. Whether it’s digging out a snow-bound truck, dividing the first whale of the spring, or sharing the last berries of the fall, many of the most fiercely independent Alaskans I know are those who are first to lend a hand when there’s work to be done. That’s the Alaska I live in, and the Alaska I hope my grandchildren will live in, too.

I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me in the last three years to thank me and say, “I am alive because of Medicaid expansion.” I believe that all Alaskans deserve dignity, respect, and the opportunity to lead safe and healthy lives. I expanded Medicaid because I was unwilling to compromise on that belief. Alaska today is stronger and healthier than it was three years ago. I have no doubts.