Legislation largely still a work in progress
Alaska state legislature wrap
As of this writing it is difficult to wrap-up the legislative session, as they are still in session (day 4 past the regular 90 day period). Legislators have not yet come to agreement on the state’s budget, which they must pass, according to the state constitution. Nevertheless, it has, to this point, been an interesting, if not altogether productive session. There are many reasons for this.
This is the first year of the 29th Legislature, with many new faces in the House and Senate, as well as a new administration. After an election, there is a learning curve for new policy makers, there is shuffling of political alliances and committee assignments, and of course this year there are some huge challenges that tended to dominate all other issues.
The key topics of legislative discussion centered around four main issues: the proposed gas line; how to deal with the voter-approved legalization of marijuana; expansion and reform of Medicaid; and the precipitous loss of oil revenue, which leaves the budget seriously cut. The budget cannot be balanced without a withdrawal from the state’s savings account (the Constitutional Budget Reserve), which requires a three-quarter vote of approval. This gives the otherwise rather powerless Democratic minority a deciding voice in the budget negotiations. Hence, the logjam.
What does all this mean for Alaska’s seniors? All in all, seniors held their own, with continued funding for essential home and community based services (including a successful restoration of money for adult day programs), and for caregiver education and support. The one difficult cut was a reduced appropriation for the Senior Benefits Program, which helps support low-income seniors with a monthly supplemental cash payment. Persons who receive payments at the two higher benefit levels will see a 20 percent reduction in their monthly amount ($35 and $25). Efforts to prevent such a budget reduction that affects some of the more needy Alaskans were not successful.
In terms of bills, very few were passed for the governor’s signature. House Bill 5, which expands the pool of persons eligible to be a court-appointed conservator of an incapacitated person’s financial affairs, is one of the few bills that did pass. It will affect a relatively few people, but is probably a good fix. One other bill that passed was HB 161, which allows for Medicaid payment for purchase of used (but in good condition) durable medical equipment, such as a walker or wheelchair.
Other bills slowly moved their way into committee hearings or even to a floor vote. These will retain their position to be taken up for consideration again next January. Among them are:
• HB 8, which updates the state’s power of attorney law
• SB 1, which provides for state-wide smoke-free workplaces
• SB 72, which requires hospitals to provide instruction for caregivers of patients regarding necessary post-discharge tasks
• SB 49, which provides a means to fund the Alaska Legal Services (legal help for low income persons) using court filing fees.
These bills will find their fate in the next session in 2016.
The big issue that lingers for this year’s legislative session (aside from the unresolved budget) is Medicaid reform and expansion. Under terms of the Affordable Care Act, states have the option to expand eligibility criteria for Medicaid health coverage to include any person with income below 133 percent of the federal poverty level, as they are not generally eligible to purchase private coverage through the health insurance marketplace. The federal government would pay the entire cost of this expanded eligibility in FY 2016, and would gradually level out at a permanent 90 percent match in 2020.
The legislature is divided on whether the state’s Medicaid system must be reformed first (there are many complicated elements of reform), or whether reform would be best accomplished through the opportunities created by expansion. The legislature seems intent on not deciding the issue during this session, thus setting up the likelihood that Gov. Walker will call them back for a special session to focus on this one matter.
As usual, the end of the legislative session is when a lot happens. It may or may not accomplish the things Alaskans expect or hope for, but at least it’s entertaining. Stay tuned!
Ken Helander is the Advocacy Director for AARP Alaska.