JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Sean Parnell took a defiant stand Thursday against the federal health care overhaul Congress passed last year, declaring that he will refuse to implement a law he views as blatantly unconstitutional.
Parnell is the latest Republican governor to lash out against the law as the courts weigh the constitutionality of the overhaul. More than half of all states, including Alaska, have sued or joined lawsuits against the government over the health care plan pushed by President Barack Obama.
It’s not immediately clear what impact the unusual, rather bold move would have on Alaskans, an estimated 14 percent of whom are uninsured year-round.
Several experts believe Parnell is on shaky legal ground and that his comments are little more than symbolic. The law won’t fully take effect until 2015 – just after his first term will have ended – and the constitutionality question will not get settled until the U.S. Supreme Court decides it.
Until then, in Parnell’s view the decision by a federal judge in Florida, striking down the law as unconstitutional, “is the law of the land, as it pertains to Alaska.”
Alaska was one of 26 states party to that case. In other cases, two federal judges have upheld the law and another judge ruled a provision requiring citizens to buy health insurance or face penalties – a major point of contention in the Florida case – is unconstitutional but did not strike down the rest of the law.
“This is one renegade judge that has reached this decision,” said Timothy S. Jost, a professor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. He called the opinion “extremist” and likely to be reversed on appeal. In refusing to participate in the law, he said, Alaska “is really the outlier” among states.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday asked U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson to clarify his order and “confirm that the court did not intend to disrupt the many programs currently in effect, including small business tax credits, the millions of dollars in federal grants awarded to states to help with health care costs, and other ongoing consumer protections while this case is on appeal,” department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.
“We believe it is important to put to rest any doubts about the ability of states and other parties to continue to implement these critical programs and consumer protections provided under this statute,” Schmaler said.
Alaska Attorney General John J. Burns said late Thursday afternoon that he had not yet seen the filing and could not immediately comment on it.
Parnell sought Burns’ advice on whether enforcing and enacting the law would violate his oath to uphold the state and U.S. constitutions. Parnell disputed the contention by Jost and others that any refusal by the states to participate in the law is an invitation to the federal government to step in and implement it for them. He reads Vinson’s decision as a court order blocking implementation.
“The state of Alaska will not pursue unlawful activity to implement a federal health care regime that has been declared unconstitutional by a federal court,” Parnell told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, to applause, Thursday.
Parnell said the state would pursue lawful, market-based solutions of its own. That includes looking at the potential for a health insurance exchange without the “shiny but poisonous apple” of federal dollars and mandates “that create federal dependency and control.”
He faced a Friday deadline for applying for federal funds to help set up an exchange and faced pressure from seven Democratic state senators to do so. He refused.
Parnell said several of the lawmakers who petitioned him are attorneys like he is and considering the Florida ruling, they should know better.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an attorney from Anchorage who signed the letter, said 49 other states accepted the federal funding for a program that he said is meant to allow for residents to get lower-cost insurance.
“For the governor to stake his flag in the ground and say, ‘This is the fight I want,’ over this provision, which is really a conservative provision, indicates to me that the governor, I think, is maybe placing politics over what’s best for Alaskans,” Wielechowski said.
Sen. Hollis French, a supporter of the federal overhaul who has introduced legislation to establish a health benefit exchange, questioned whether Parnell would be open to “meaningful reform.”
Parnell said there were four areas of the law where, prior to the judge’s decision, he had taken action. Those areas include setting up a state-run high-risk pool providing a coverage option for Alaskans previously denied insurance for pre-existing conditions. He said about 28 people are on the program list, and he believes the state should continue funding.
Alaska will work to provide more affordable, accessible health care “as a matter of state policy, not as a mandate of the federal government,” he told The Associated Press.
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said currently states have an “enormous amount of discretion” in how they implement provisions of the law. If the governor refuses to exercise that, the federal government will have the say, he said.
Neither he nor Jost knew of any other state taking action similar to Parnell.