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Legislators Promote Medicare Solution – Again

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE April 15, 2010

Democrats Push Plan to Help Alaska Seniors

(JUNEAU) – In an effort to take advantage of a recent change in federal rules, Democrats in the Alaska House of Representatives will once more present a plan to help solve Alaska’s troublesome shortage of Medicare providers, this time on the floor of the State House.  Presently, in many locations around the state, doctors refuse to accept Medicare patients because the Alaska reimbursement rate is too low.  Previous law generally prohibited the state from providing additional funds to doctors who accept Medicare patients. 

U.S. Senator Mark Begich, working with Representatives Les Gara and Lindsey Holmes (both of Anchorage), successfully added an amendment to the recently enacted federal health care reform bill allowing states to provide grants to medical providers who treat any underserved population the state identifies, which may include seniors.

Last month, Reps. Gara and Holmes and Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) wrote a letter to Governor Sean Parnell and the entire Alaska State Legislature, urging them to support and pass legislation to implement and take advantage of this federal provision.  When that effort failed to elicit a positive response, the Anchorage lawmakers began work to include the new provision as an amendment to legislation likely to pass in the few remaining days of the Twenty-sixth Alaska Legislature.  The plan will be offered as an amendment to House Joint Resolution 35, scheduled for floor action today. 

“We have a great opportunity to finally make sure seniors can get the medical care they need, and should take advantage of it,” Rep. Gara said.  “Senator Begich deserves a lot of credit for working to craft this solution, and for passing the additional 10% increase in Medicare primary care re-imbursement.”

While Medicare has generally provided good coverage for seniors in most places in the country, the federal re-imbursement rate formula used in Alaska under-compensates doctors, nurses and other medical providers in certain regions in the state, especially for primary care services, and for general office visits to both general practitioners and specialists.   Recognizing a major federal re-imbursement change faced difficult hurdles, Reps. Gara and Holmes worked with Senator Begich to find a way to supplement Medicare funding in areas where Alaskans faced a medical care shortage. 

Pat Luby, Advocacy Director of the Alaska Chapter of American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) said, “AARP believes that the Alaska Legislature will now have an opportunity to help meet the Medicare access crisis that so many older Alaskans find themselves in upon their 65th birthdays.  The collaboration between the Congressional delegation and our legislators is a model of how to attack a common problem faced by their constituents.”

Joan Fisher, Executive Director of the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center agreed.  “Alaska's senior population will increase by a third in the next five years and services for seniors are not prepared to handle this boom,” Fisher said.  “This bill will create an avenue for providers of health services to be adequately reimbursed for seeing Medicare beneficiaries and increase access to primary care.”

The amendment Sen. Begich advocated provides a state may establish a “grant” directing payments to medical providers in areas of that state where there is a medical care shortage.  This overcomes federal agency arguments that states may not provide funds to doctors to enable them to treat Medicare patients.  Any grant program, however, will likely have to be worded to benefit seniors, not just seniors who utilize Medicare, and must be implemented by an agency other than the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

“Our proposed legislation establishes a grant program for medical providers who treat senior citizens in areas where seniors are currently being underserved,” Rep. Holmes said.  “Grants would go first to providers who would most efficiently expand their treatment of Alaska’s seniors using the grant funds.”

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