Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens

Sen. Gary Stevens said Wednesday he supports Gov. Bill Walker’s intention to accept federal money to expand Medicaid in Alaska despite criticisms from the Republican-majority legislature.

“I think there are so many good things about it,” said

Stevens, R-Kodiak, referring to Walker’s plan to augment the public health insurance. “There will be a lot of jobs created in the medical field,” among other benefits, he said.

Walker’s unilateral move makes Alaska the 31st state to expand Medicaid after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of a key provision in the Affordable Care Act. The ruling opens the door for governors to expand health care under the law as they grappled with objections from Republican-dominated legislatures.

Stevens said expanding Medicaid in Alaska would give coverage to 20,000 to 40,000 low-income residents. State estimates say the expansion will save the state coffers $146 million during the first year.

“Many states have tried it and it sometimes work with some and not with others,” Stevens said. “Is it going to work (in Alaska)? That is what we are going to find out.”

Walker said he had sent a letter to the state’s Legislative Budget and Audit Committee last Thursday, giving him sufficient time to comply with the 45-day notice required under Alaska law.

Stevens agreed that the committee can issue a recommendation, but Walker had the authority under state law to proceed with his plans even if the panel decides to reject it.

Stevens acknowledged Walker’s plan was divisive, considering the economic upheavals currently faced by the state with the loss of revenue due to plummeting oil prices. But Stevens agreed with the governor: “it is really time to make a decision.”

“The governor still needs us to make this really work,” Stevens said. “I am hoping we can get beyond this divisiveness.”

Walker said he hoped newly eligible residents could start enrolling in September. The federal government will cover the full cost through 2016, then gradually lower its share to 90 percent by 2020.

Expanding Medicaid was a campaign priority for Walker, a former Republican who took office in December as an independent. The state’s health department has recently hired a consultant to help recommend next steps as the governor tabled further changes to the Medicaid program.

“I think that is a good idea. I think it’s right to hire a consultant and find out what the real situation is,” Stevens said.

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