FAIRBANKS — When Gov. Bill Walker announced Alaska will accept Medicaid expansion, opening coverage to some 40,000 uncovered Alaskans, representatives of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital were there cheering the decision along with dozens of others.
When he took the podium at the Anchorage news conference, Jeff Cook, the president of the Greater Fairbanks Community Hospital Foundation that owns Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, said the move would bring millions of dollars and new jobs to the community.
The state estimates that more than 4,000 new jobs will be created throughout Alaska to serve the new enrollees.
Those jobs largely will focus on the healthcare industry, state officials said, but will include construction, hospitality and other fields.
The state estimates that of the people who will become Medicaid eligible when expansion goes into effect by Sept. 1 about 5,000 live in the Interior.
“We are ready in Fairbanks to take on Medicaid expansion,” Cook said.
But just what Medicaid expansion will mean for FMH is a little more complicated.
In a follow-up with FMH spokeswoman Kelly Atlee, she said the hospital itself isn’t likely to add any new jobs because of Medicaid expansion.
But the reason FMH doesn’t expect to add new jobs is because many of the people who stand to benefit from Medicaid expansion already are visiting the hospital through its costly emergency room.
“Will we see the development of new jobs at FMH? It’s not likely, because we are probably already seeing these patients, so our overall volumes aren’t expected to grow,” she said.
That’s what’s considered uncompensated care; people who use services like the emergency room but are unable to pay. She said the hospital has an estimated $14 million of uncompensated care costs annually.
“Medicaid expansion will put health care providers in a position to recover payment — at Medicaid rates, not full price — for previously uncompensated care,” she said in an email.
Becky Hultberg, the head of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said providing Medicaid coverage for the uncovered is one of the biggest boons of expansion. She said there’s more than $100 million in uncompensated care in Alaska every year, much of which ends up getting passed along to the community in one way or another.
“Someone is paying for those costs,” she said. “That’s the real benefit of Medicaid expansion and now we have a payment source to mitigate uncompensated care.”
As far as new jobs go, Hultberg and Atlee said they expect to see more grow among physicians and other preventative services.
“When you look at those 4,000 jobs, that’s a number that’s spread across the state in a variety of different places,” she said. “There’s new jobs in physicians’ offices, in behavioral health and hospitals if the increase in volume necessitates it.”
Just how big that growth will turn out to be will be based on just how many of the 40,000 eligible Alaskans will sign up for Medicaid. The state estimates about half will sign up, but some other states have seen higher than expected enrollment.
Hultberg said expectations for the growth of the Medicaid enrollees is expected to be gradual.
Opponents of Medicaid expansion have cast doubt about those forecasts, wondering just when and where those jobs will show up.
In an interview earlier this week, Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly said he’s concerned the healthcare system will be overwhelmed.
“I think one of the parts of the broken system that a lot of people haven’t considered is the workforce available to take these people on,” he said. “We simply don’t have enough healthcare workers in some regions. ... It’s just going to make the lines longer, the waits longer.”
Opponents like Kelly favored taking additional time to study and implement reforms before considering expansion.
But Cook said there likely will be some growing pains regardless if expansion begins this fall or if its done after months or years of studying. He said it’s better both for people and the healthcare system to do it now rather than later.
“It’s better to do something and do it imperfectly than to do nothing and do so flawlessly,” he said.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.