By Libby Casey
When the federal government announced last week that every state is getting a million dollars to help pay for a new piece of the national health care law, just two states were left off the list: Alaska and Minnesota. They didn’t apply. Alaska’s governor doesn’t want the money. And critics of the Parnell Administration say that decision hurts Alaskans.
States are setting up online marketplaces for health insurance so consumers and small businesses can shop around for the best policy. It’s supposed to be like websites that show competing car insurance rates, or price out plane tickets, and it’s a cornerstone of the six-month-old health care law. Jay Angoff (ang-GOFF) directs the federal office of consumer information and insurance oversight, and says each state will have its own marketplace to suit its local needs.
They enable consumers to band together and get better deal than they would if they were just doing it individually.
The federal million dollars will help states plan these consumer marketplaces. But the state of Alaska said “no thanks” to the money. Alaska is one of twenty states suing over the health care law, claiming that it’s unconstitutional to force people to buy insurance. The other states suing are still taking the federal funds. Yet Alaska’s Division of Insurance Director Linda Hall says if Alaska’s against making people buy insurance, why set up a consumer marketplace?
The exchange is the vehicle through which individuals could purchase the insurance that the act mandates. Since that’s the act, the individual mandate, is what’s being considered unconstitutional, we’re not going to accept federal money to develop a vehicle to implement that part of the act.
Anchorage State Senator Hollis French says he’s disturbed that Alaska is rejecting the money. The Democrat says while he too has some concerns about the health care law, the marketplace is a great way to educate people about their options and help them save money.
So it’s important to construct this marketplace the right way. The federal government is offering us money to do that. And for the Governor to reject that money is unconscionable.
Senator Mark Begich voted for the health care bill in Washington, and his spokeswoman Julie Hasquet says the Governor is treating the law like a political piñata.
It is too bad that Alaskans are not only not going to know what’s going on, we’re not going to be able to take advantage of the resources available to make this new law work, and we’re just going to pretend like it’s not there.
Begich and French are upset that Alaska has rejected other federal health care funds. Like $250-million nation-wide that’s going to states to make sure insurance companies aren’t unfairly raising their rates. Most states applied but Alaska did not. Senator French complained in a letter to Governor Parnell Tuesday that it should’ve:
A lot of insurance policies are raising their rates, they’re claiming it’s because of this new federal health care bill. The federal government is offering states money to analyze this. Because what a lot of consumers don’t know, is that most regulation is done at the state level.
But the state’s Linda Hall says Alaska’s market is so small that her office doesn’t need the federal money:
Currently there is only one company who writes health insurance in Alaska whose rates have to be approved by the Division of Insurance before they’re used. So the grant amount was a million dollars, and we didn’t have what we considered to be valid uses of that kind of money when our market is so small.
Hall says the state can find ways to cut costs and improve insurance on its own without the feds. But Senator French chides the Parnell Administration, and says it’s not coming up with its own ways to get coverage for the 115-thousand uninsured Alaskans.
Well I can promise that when Linda Hall comes before legislator next year for her annual budget, I’ll be proposing she’s overflowing with money and must not need anything from us, because she’s got everything she needs given that we’re turning down federal dollars to help her do her job better. And the same goes for the Governor.
French and Senator Begich are also upset because the state isn’t giving some of the health care law’s perks to its retirees. Like one of the most popular benefits, having children covered to the age of 26.
But the state is not required to do that, and Rachel Petro, the Deputy Commissioner who oversees the Division of Retirement and Benefits for the state, says it would be a costly move:
We’d need to enter into a dialog with the legislature because ultimately they appropriate the funds that contribute to retiree health plan. And since this is not something retirees have paid into, since it would be a new benefit and a new provision, there would be cost associated with that.
When it comes to taking federal funds, the state can apply in future rounds. And the Parnell Administration says it will make decisions about taking money for the health care law on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, elements of the law are being phased in throughout the country.