Budget panel advances Walker's Medicaid changes

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Associated Press
Monday, December 2, 2013

MADISON, Wis. — The Republican-controlled budget committee voted Monday to go along with Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan that delays expanding Medicaid coverage to poor childless adults for three months, despite pleas from advocates who said such a move was immoral.

Current law expands Medicaid coverage in January to about 83,000 childless adults who earn less than the poverty level. At the same time, about 72,000 parents and caretakers receiving Medicaid now who earn more than poverty level would be kicked off the program. Those people would have to purchase insurance and could do so through the federally run health insurance marketplace.

Walker, citing the widely acknowledged problems with the federal exchange website, last month proposed delaying kicking people out of Medicaid until April. That would give them three additional months to purchase insurance. To pay for that continuation of coverage, Walker also proposed delaying expanding Medicaid for the childless adults until April.

The Republican-controlled Legislature is moving quickly on Walker's plan. The Joint Finance Committee voted 11-2 Monday to pass the bill, with all Republicans and one Democrat in support and two Democrats against. The Assembly is slated to take it up Wednesday, with the Senate voting later this month.

Opponents, including AARP Wisconsin and a coalition of religious leaders, told the committee at Monday's hearing that the Legislature should delay kicking people out of Medicaid but allow expanding coverage to the childless adults to happen on time in January.

Walker's current plan "doesn't make moral sense," said Bobby Peterson, executive director of the health care advocacy group ABC for Health, a public-interest law firm in Madison that helps connect Wisconsin families with health care.

Republicans who control the committee bristled at the criticism, saying it was the poor rollout of the federal website that's forcing them to delay the coverage expansion to give those who face losing Medicaid more time to purchase private insurance.

"Would we like to do more? Of course," said Sen. Alberta Darling, the Republican co-chair of the committee. "But in these three months we're doing what we can do."

Rep. John Nygren, the other Republican co-chair, called the rollout of the health exchange website a "disaster," noting that as of mid-November only 877 people in Wisconsin had purchased coverage through it.

Walker rejected federal money to expand Medicaid. Instead, Walker and the Legislature lowered Medicaid eligibility for parents and caretaker relatives from 200 percent to 100 percent of poverty, reducing the number of people on the program, while expanding Medicaid to childless adults below poverty. The childless adult program has been closed to new enrollees since 2009.

The federal poverty level is $11,490 for an individual, $15,510 for a couple and $23,550 for a family of four.

Democratic amendments to accept the federal money to expand Medicaid and to have coverage for childless adults begin in January, instead of April, were rejected.

Rep. Jon Richards, the Democrat who voted for the bill, said he was backing it because he supported the three-month enrollment extension. He was opposed to the three-month delay for the childless adult expansion.

"This is an imperfect Band-Aid on a mistake the Legislature and governor created, a completely avoidable problem that we failed to fix today," Richards said.

The state's high-risk insurance pool also is slated to disappear at the beginning of the year, leaving about 20,000 more people without coverage. Walker's bill allows those people to retain their coverage for three more months as well.

The pool — funded by a mix of money from health care providers, insurance companies and premiums — offers coverage for people with serious conditions who can't get it elsewhere. The federal health care law requires insurance companies to provide coverage regardless of a person's condition, eliminating the need for the pools.

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