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Leading state Democrat touts federal funds for BadgerCare [The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.]

By Chris Vetter, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 07--CHIPPEWA FALLS -- Accepting federal Medicaid funding to expand BadgerCare would create 10,000 new jobs, allow at least 175,000 Wisconsin residents to obtain health insurance and save $247 million in uncompensated care costs, state Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said Wednesday in the Chippewa Valley.

However, it remains unclear whether Gov. Scott Walker will accept billions in federal money to expend the health insurance program for Wisconsin's working poor, prompting concern on the part of Larson and other Democrats, who said failing to do so would leave some of Wisconsin's economically vulnerable residents without coverage.

"This is a unilateral decision by our governor," Larson, D-Milwaukee, told an audience of 30 during a listening session in Chippewa Falls about the possible expansion of BadgerCare. "The only problem is it comes down to a decision by one person, who is not in the room and doesn't appear to be listening."

The savings Larson touted Wednesday would come by replacing state money to cover childless adults with money from the federal government made available under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law. The analysis was done by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau at the request of Democrats.

An estimated 175,000 childless adults in Wisconsin are expected to qualify for Medicaid starting in 2014 under the expansion. To qualify, the household income must be below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $15,414 for an individual this year and $20,628 for a couple.

The federal government pays for all of the expansion for three years, or $1.4 billion in Wisconsin, according to the Fiscal Bureau. After that, the federal reimbursement gradually declines to 90 percent. Through 2020, Wisconsin would receive nearly $4.4 billion in federal money, the Fiscal Bureau said.

Walker has cited concerns about how much it would cost Wisconsin in the long run to pay for the Medicaid expansion. While the federal government would pick up the tab for three years, costs to the state would gradually increase and eventually be 10 percent. Over four years, starting in 2016, new costs to the state would total about $133 million, the Fiscal Bureau said.

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"What you'll hear from the governor is there is no clarity the funding will be there in the future," Larson said.

Larson said he believes the governor will have his mind made up on Medicaid funding by Feb. 20, when he unveils his two-year state budget. However, the governor could accept the federal funding at any point this calendar year.

Like Walker, many Republican legislators are leery of accepting the federal funding. State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said the state already does an excellent job of proving health insurance to Wisconsin's poor residents.

"Does it really strengthen (BadgerCare)?" Bernier said. "That's up to interpretation. Those (federal) matches go away, and you end up paying 100 percent. Everyone knows that when you create a government program it never goes away."

Bernier said to accept the federal dollars is "short-sighted at best."

Earlier in the day in Eau Claire, with 30 supporters in the background holding signs at the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic, state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, and Kevin Kane, health care organizer for Citizen Action of Wisconsin, asked the governor to accept the money for BadgerCare.

Kane said Wisconsin's uninsured and underinsured residents are going to emergency rooms for health problems that could have been corrected with regular doctor visits had they had health insurance.

Wachs said that he plans to co-sponsor legislation in the Assembly that would ask Walker to accept the BadgerCare funding.

"I've seen the impacts of the uninsured and underinsured, and the impacts it has on their families," Wachs said. "This should be a nonpartisan issue. This should be a human issue."

Among the 146,000 Wisconsin residents on the BadgerCare waiting list that could be aided if the governor accepts the federal dollars are 2,936 in Eau Claire County and 1,557 in Chippewa County, Kane said.

Maribeth Woodford, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic in Eau Claire, said the number of patient visits at the site jumped from 2,100 in 2011 to about 2,800 last year.

Democrats are hoping Walker will follow the lead of other conservative governors, including John Kasich in Ohio and Jan Brewer in Arizona, who have decided to move ahead with the expansion. Several other GOP governors have said they will not go forward, including Rick Perry in Texas, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

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A broad coalition of labor groups, doctors, hospitals, health providers and advocates for the poor back the expansion in Wisconsin. Supporters include the AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, the Wisconsin Primary Care Association and the Wisconsin chapter of the American College of Physicians.

Even if Walker were to accept the expansion, he could run into trouble among Republicans who control the Legislature and have been outspoken against Obama's health care overhaul.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.


(c)2013 Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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