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Alaska to join health care fight

Governor, AG say federal mandate unconstitutional

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gov. Sean Parnell announced Tuesday that Alaska will be joining a Republican-led effort challenging federal health care reform laws by joining Florida's lawsuit to block it on constitutional grounds.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Parnell called the system recently adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama "obnoxious" and an assault on both states' rights and individual liberty.

"With the enactment of health care legislation, the federal government has reached well beyond the scope of its authority, it's reached into the lives and freedom of Alaskans," Parnell said.

Parnell has faced criticism that Alaska had not acted quickly enough, but said he chose to have Attorney General Dan Sullivan first do an extensive legal analysis of the question. Tuesday, he made that analysis public and announced Alaska would be joining 21 other states filing suit.

Several of the legislators remaining in Juneau after the conclusion of the legislative session have been leaders on health issues, and are split on Parnell's action.

"I'm so glad we're doing this," said Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, the only registered nurse in the Alaska Legislature.

She said Alaska, and not the federal government, should address health care issues and should be able to decide itself where to focus its health care efforts.

"We've got people with insurance who don't have access to health care in Alaska and we've got to find ways to get them access," she said.

Legislative opinion on health care reform has been mixed. A resolution urging Alaska's legislative delegation to oppose health care reform was pulled from the House floor prior to a vote, often an indication that it didn't have enough support to pass.

Later, after Congress adopted the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," a proposed constitutional amendment which would prohibit laws that compel purchase of health insurance failed to pass the Alaska House.

One of the sponsors of that amendment, Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, praised Parnell's action, saying he'd been urging Parnell to join the fight since January.

"Let's get with other states and join a lawsuit," he said.

Sullivan made public his 48-page legal analysis Tuesday, after Parnell waived confidentiality.

The federal health care law, he said, was unique in the country's history in taking away freedoms from its citizens.

"The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States," Parnell said.

Those who don't comply would have to pay a 2.5 percent tax penalty, he said.

Parnell, an experienced lawyer himself, said Sullivan's analysis determined that such actions would be in violation of the Commerce Clause of the U. S. Constitution that allows the government to regulate commerce.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he was less convinced that analysis was correct. He voted against Gatto's constitutional amendment, saying it was so broadly written that it might ban Medicare.

"If you look at Medicare, it is an insurance requirement," he said. "If you want to work, you have to pay into Medicare if you are employed or self-employed."

Sullivan said his constitutional analysis did not do a direct comparison to Social Security.

Sullivan said the state's lawsuit was "not an attack on New Deal legislation, or anything like that."

"Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, there are many national programs we all pitch in to get a benefit back," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who has proposed his own universal health care plan for Alaska. He is running for governor in the upcoming election.

Sullivan said filing the suit would cost about $5,000.

The federal mandate for health coverage would likely apply to nearly 100,000 Alaskans, based on likely growth of uninsured residents from a study on health care coverage conducted by the Alaska Health Care Commission.

French said the idea of requiring insurance has only recently become partisan.

"The individual mandate was an idea developed by the Republicans in 1993 as a response to the Clinton health care plan, and also advanced by Republican Mitt Romney in 1996, so it is not like it's an unprecedented idea," French said.

Parnell and Sullivan challenged Congress' authority to impose a health care mandate, but studiously avoided mentioning President Obama in their Tuesday press conference.

That's in contrast to the recent Republican Party Convention in Juneau, where "ObamaCare" and more derogatory terms were used to describe federal health care mandates.

Parnell, at the convention last week, defended doing a meticulous review as the best way to protect Alaska's interests.

Tuesday, he came out strongly in opposition.

"The federal government is taking our liberty," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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