Two newly influential state senators are proposing a potentially controversial health care plan. If adopted, it could bring health care coverage to most uninsured Alaskans.
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Sens. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, and Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, are both members of the Senate Working Group, the bipartisan coalition that controls the Senate under the leadership of Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla.
French presented his plan at a press conference Monday, calling for universal health care for all Alaskans by making insurance affordable.
Hollis' plan, which he called a "framework for change", was introduced as Senate Bill 160 on Monday. It would require all Alaskans to have health care coverage.
"You have your choice among plans, but you must get coverage," French said.
Ellis likened it to the requirement for mandatory automobile liability coverage.
French and Ellis had previously been in the minority, but French is now the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Ellis is chairman of the Labor and Commerce Committee.
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The framework plan would be aimed at one of the largest blocks of Alaskans without health care: the working uninsured.
Rapidly rising health care inflation has made it difficult for many with jobs that don't provide health care to afford to buy their own insurance. Yet they make too much to qualify for government-provided health care programs, the two senators said.
They'd get help with purchasing insurance, but also would be required to have a policy.
"It's very strong on personal responsibility," Ellis said of the requirement to purchase insurance.
The plan would be funded by a tax of one or two percent on those businesses that do not provide their employees with health care if they have more than 10 employees.
The framework calls that an employer levy, not a tax, and said it would be combined with state and federal dollars to provide vouchers to help buy the insurance. No cost estimates were included.
Ellis said it wasn't the first time he's tried to bring health care to everyone, having first worked with former Juneau Rep. Jim Duncan on the effort as a young legislator. That effort failed.
"Maybe we were ahead of our time, by a couple of decades," he said.
Juneau physician Lindy Jones said he was not yet familiar with the bill, but said it sounds like it could address some of the problems he sees regularly in his clinic and in his work in the Bartlett Regional Hospital Emergency Room with uninsured patients.
"The cost of health care insurance is prohibitive," he said. "They just fly by the seat of their pants and hope they won't get sick."
When the uninsured do get sick, that can lead to expensive care for hospitals, care that would often be cheaper to provide earlier on a preventative basis.
That could keep hospital and doctor charity-care costs from getting passed on to those with insurance.
"We have to run a business. We have to pay for rent, our employees, our insurance," Jones said. "We end up having to write off a lot of care for people who don't have insurance."
Several other states, including Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts and California, are attempting to solve the crisis of rising costs and declining coverage levels.
Ellis said the demographics of Alaska makes it possible to fix here.
"This is a much more solvable problem in the state of Alaska than elsewhere," he said.
More Alaskans than residents of other states are covered by insurance provided by big businesses, or government programs, including the Indian Health Service. This means the working poor are among the largest block of the uninsured.
"Alaska is the best place in the country to try this," he said.
Pat Forgey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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