Alaska lawmakers differ on impact of Supreme Court health care decision

McClatchy NewspapersJune 28, 2012 

Alaska’s congressional delegation is at odds over Thursday’s pivotal Supreme Court decision on the Obama administration’s health care act, with Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Don Young already talking about pushing for the law’s repeal while Democrat Mark Begich said it was now time to move on.

Alaska was among the states that challenged the constitutionality of the health care law. Murkowski, the state’s senior senator, said Alaskans will see tax increases and individual rights violations because of the court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act.

The court upheld almost all portions of the act, despite questions about the constitutionality of a part that requires most individuals to purchase health insurance under the threat of financial penalties. In doing so, it found the so-called individual mandate was permitted because of Congress’ tax-levying powers.

“After the president very clearly stated that this bill is not a tax and those in Congress supporting this measure said this is not a tax, it has very clearly been labeled as such today,” Murkowski said in a conference call. “If there’s one thing Alaskans will agree on, it’s that they don’t like taxes.”

While the Democratic Begich said it’s time to move forward from the ruling, Murkowski, House member Young and Gov. Sean Parnell, also a Republican, said Congress must now repeal the law. Murkowski said the issue will come to define the November election.

Murkowski said many promises made about the bill haven’t been kept, including assurances that Americans would receive lower costs and premiums, taxes wouldn’t change and Medicare would be protected. She said many tax increases set to occur at the end of next year will be unpopular with Alaskans.

“I think many of us had forgotten about them because those deadlines were well off into the future,” Murkowski said. “Nobody’s been talking about these, because they’ve been out of sight, out of mind. Now that the Supreme Court has dared to use the ‘T word’ and say what it [the law] is – a tax on American public – I think they’re going to get a lot of attention.”

Alaskans will have to face taxes including a “wellness tax,” Medicare payroll taxes and a tax on medical devices like dental implants, Murkowski said.

Even so, Murkowski said she recognized some benefits that fellow senator Begich cited as the law’s successes. Among them are the provisions that allow young people to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26 and that guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

There’s been debate over where Murkowski stands on the health care law. Joe Miller, her opponent in the 2010 Republican primary, argued Murkowski really wasn’t against repeal because of a statement she’d earlier made to KTUU television in Anchorage that “repealing this is not the answer in my opinion because if you just repeal and do nothing, we will not have addressed health care reform.”

However, she voted against the bill and joined other Republicans in voting in favor of unsuccessful Senate attempts to repeal it, most recently in February of 2011.

The Democratic Begich said he was pleased by the court’s decision.

“While the law is not perfect, the status quo was not an option,” Begich said in a statement. “It is time to move past the politics and come together to make the law work for Alaskans.”

Begich referred to many of the same benefits as Murkowski and further praised the law’s creation of tax credits for small businesses and more services for the elderly and Alaska Natives. He said citizens could also possibly receive cash rebates if insurers don’t use their premiums for health care.

In Alaska, 18 percent of citizens have no insurance. Under Obama’s health care law, 9,000 young adults in Alaska will be able to keep the insurance they’ve recently gained through their parents’ plans and 40,000 Alaskan families will receive tax credits, Begich said.

Julie Hasquet, Begich’s press secretary, said the senator believes lawmakers must move on from the political squabbling.

“His view is that the court has upheld the law, it can continue to tweak it but the time has come to move forward,” she said.

Alaska does not have a health insurance exchange – a marketplace showing people in the state their health insurance options – and under the new law it will have to set one up. Parnell said in a statement that the state is reviewing the court’s decision on what had been a required state Medicaid expansion, but was ruled Thursday to be optional.

Begich said it’s a good idea to undertake the expansion of Medicaid, which funds health care for low-income people through a combination of federal and state dollars.

“In Alaska, more than 30,000 people are newly eligible,” Begich said in his statement. “Because the states will never pay more than 10 cents on the dollar for this coverage, it is a very good deal.”

But according to Murkowski, it’s time to “repeal and replace.” Murkowski said she thinks there will be congressional action to repeal the law in the coming weeks. However, because of Obama and the Democratically-controlled Senate, Young believes the chances of repeal this year are almost zero.

The next step in the repeal process will be a vote in the House of Representatives on July 11, according to Luke Miller, Young’s press secretary. But Young believes the law’s outcome will really be decided by the American people in November, Miller said.

Like Murkowski, Young emphasized the law’s comparison to a tax.

“The unfortunate irony today is that ObamaCare was saved because it is a new tax on the American people – which is something this president promised would not happen,” Young said in a statement.

Young does support certain aspects of the law, especially the Indian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization and Extension Act, which he designed. In January, Young introduced a bill in the House that would repeal all of Obama’s law except the Indian health care segment, according to Miller.

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