Alaska lawmakers weigh in on key legislative priorities

Alaska lawmakers from both sides of the aisle weighed in on some of their key legislative priorities during the 2022 Alaska State of Reform Health Policy Conference.  

 

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Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes and Rep. Ken McCarty, a member of the House Health & Social Services Committee, represented the Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, Rep. Andy Josephson, Chair of the House Health & Social Services Finance Subcommittee, and Rep. Zack Fields, a member of the House Health & Social Services Committee, represented the Democrats.

Republican policy priorities

Hughes highlighted the need to lower health care costs in the state.

“We are the most expensive state of all 50 for health care,” Hughes said. “I tell you guys, something is fundamentally wrong. What I have seen is the problem continue. It hasn’t gotten any better. It is not sustainable for families.”

The proposed Alaska Healthcare Consumers Right to Shop Act could help address the issue, Hughes said. She discussed some of the bill’s components.

“Insurance companies are to provide online tools so you can know beforehand what something’s going to cost, and you can actually cost compare,” Hughes said. “These online tools are supposed to give a more accurate picture of what you would pay for, let’s say, a shoulder surgery. You’d also be able to tell what the different providers are. You could read reviews too.”

The act would provide financial incentives for multiple players. If a customer purchases a health care service for a price that is cheaper than the average cost for it, the customer, their employer, and the insurance provider would each get a cut of a shared savings check, Hughes said.

McCarty, a mental health provider, said providers often face challenges in acquiring payments from insurance companies.

“As a provider, I see a great challenge in getting the money,” McCarty said. “[We submit] a CPT code for the service, and then we find out the insurance company is not willing to pay that, or even close to that.”

Democratic policy priorities

Fields said his top priority is public safety. 

“What are we doing to make sure there’s adequate addiction treatment and mental health care?” Fields asked. “Our local government in Anchorage has insufficient funding for police and our crisis intervention team [operated] through the fire department. So I want to restore community assistance and focus on public safety for crisis intervention teams. That fire department team needs to be available 24/7. And it needs to be able to respond to every incident. It is not even close to being fully staffed.”

Fields said he will also focus on the relationships between kids and social determinants of health. 

“It really irritates me when people say we can cut health care costs by cutting health care,” Fields said. “That will not cut costs for the government. The way we can reduce health care costs long-term is by addressing the social determinants of health. When you look at trauma, addiction, [and] incarceration costs, we will not bring those down over time unless kids have a safe environment to learn and grow up in. We need to address child care.”

Begich noted that lawmakers made progress in child care during the last session with the passage of the Alaska Reads Act, which supports comprehensive reading and pre-kindergarten support services.

“That will be phased in over the next 5-and-a-half [to] 6 years,” Begich said. “There will be the ability, as that’s phased in, to look at health outcomes with those young people. And that will be critical in determining how we allocate health dollars in the future.”