- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2015

A state judge refused Friday to halt Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s unilateral bid to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, turning back GOP lawmakers who asked him to shelve the plan until the courts can fully vet their lawsuit against the governor.

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner’s ruling from the bench in Anchorage effectively allows Mr. Walker to begin signing up the first of roughly 20,000 newly eligible Alaskans on Tuesday.

“Unless some other court, meaning the [state] Supreme Court, issues some ruling between and now and Sept. 1, Medicaid expansion as the governor has said it will happen will indeed happen,” Judge Pfiffner said. “That’s the ruling of the court.”

The 2010 health care law called on states to expand their Medicaid programs to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, with the federal government paying the full tab for expansion through 2016 before scaling down its contribution to 90 percent in 2020 and beyond.

However, the Supreme Court in 2012 said states could choose not to expand their programs without forfeiting existing program funds.

Mr. Walker, an independent, announced in mid-July that he would make an end run around the legislature and accept federal funds to expand the health program for the poor in line with the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

He said he was tired of the GOP-controlled blocking his plans to become the 30th state, plus D.C., to expand Medicaid and would act within 45 days.

State lawmakers who sued Mr. Walker this month had asked Judge Pfiffner to issue a temporary restraining order so that expansion did not proceed while the courts deal with the case and likely appeals.

They said the legislature passed a budget in June that explicitly barred the governor from using Medicaid appropriations for expansion.

But Judge Pfiffner took issue with how that provision was written. He said the state’s Legislative Affairs Committee had advised lawmakers they could pass a bill that affirmatively denied coverage to the newly eligible population under Obamacare, but it “didn’t take the bait.”

“Instead, what did the [Legislative] Council do in this case? It did two things. It ineffectually and unconstitutionally amended the appropriations bill to attempt to prohibit what the governor is doing here, and it filed this lawsuit,” the judge said.

Despite Friday’s ruling, the Republican-led lawsuit is not going away any time soon.

Judge Pfiffner still must weigh the lawsuit’s merits, and lawmakers have made it clear they intend to fight the case to the highest courts, setting aside up to $400,000 for the Bancroft law firm out of D.C. and $50,000 to the Holmes, Weddle and Barcott law firm in Anchorage to pursue their claims.

Indeed, Judge Pfiffner acknowledged from the bench that he probably won’t have the last word on summary judgment, either.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges Mr. Walker is attempting to expand Medicaid beyond the 15 “optional groups” for which the legislature has approved coverage.

“By usurping the legislature’s constitutional appropriations power, the governor would cause irreparable injury to the rights not just of the legislature, but of the Alaska citizenry,” the plaintiff’s lawyers said in court papers filed this week to stop Mr. Walker.

In court papers, the lawmakers argued it would be unfair to insure thousands, only to reel it back in if that coverage is deemed unlawful, and that enrolling thousands more “significantly diminish the quality of care” provided to current enrollees.

They say every dollar diverted to Medicaid expansion could be spent on a program the legislature “actually has authorized,” and complained the governor planned to divert $1.6 million from the state Mental Health Trust Fund to cover implementation costs.

Mr. Walker has said he is “disappointed” with the legislature’s decision to sue, noting the state can withdraw from the expansion if the federal government does not hold up its end of the funding.

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