White House praises state for expanding Medicaid

ANCHORAGE — The White House on Tuesday praised the decision by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker to expand Medicaid to thousands of residents over the wishes of the Republican-led Legislature, calling it the “right decision.”

Alaska on Tuesday became the 29th state to expand Medicaid, opening up health care through what it calls the Healthy Alaska Plan to an estimated 20,000 low-income residents.

“Many Alaskans are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, and have not been able to afford health insurance,” Walker said. “The Healthy Alaska Plan ensures that working Alaskans will no longer have to choose between health care and bankruptcy.”

Expansion prioritizes “the health of the state’s citizens over narrow political interests,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who is traveling in Alaska with President Barack Obama.

Messages left Tuesday with the state House and Senate Republican majorities were not immediately returned.

Walker earlier this summer announced plans to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage after state legislators tabled his expansion legislation for further review.

When Walker announced he would act without their consent, the Legislative Council, acting on behalf of lawmakers, sued to stop expansion. A state judge on Friday refused to put a temporary halt to expansion, and lawmakers asked the Alaska Supreme Court to intervene. The state’s high court on Monday refused to step in, allowing the state to begin signing up residents for the program as of Tuesday.

The other states and the District of Columbia that have expanded Medicaid now include all adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

The federal government agreed to pay all costs for the new enrollees through 2016, but it will begin lowering its share in 2017. States will pay 10 percent of the costs by 2020.

Some Alaska lawmakers expressed concern with adding more people to a system they consider broken. Administration officials have acknowledged the current Medicaid program isn’t sustainable, but they see expansion as a way to get federal dollars to help finance reform efforts.

Walker has said nearly 20,000 working Alaskans will have access to health care under expansion.