Gov. Tony Evers visits a vaccination clinic in March 2021 | Evers’ Facebook
On Wednesday, Gov. Tony Evers called for the Legislature to convene in special session to consider a bill that would expand BadgerCare and use much of the $1 billion in additional, unallocated federal funds that expansion would bring into the state on a wide range of health care and economic development projects.
The Legislature has yet to take one of Evers’ special session calls seriously — rather, they have typically gaveled in and then adjourned without taking any action.
Republicans have been even more dismissive of Democrats’ push, for years, to accept the federal payments offered to states that expand Medicaid, which would provide not only the financial resources, but also give roughly 90,000 more Wisconsin residents health insurance.
The Legislature cast aside an additional $1.6 billion this year, which includes a special sweetener for hold-out states, to the total number of dollars it has rejected. Most Republican-led states, and all Democratic-led states have accepted the expansion money, including two recent hold-out states, and Wisconsin is one of just 12 states that have refused it.
So why is Evers calling another, likely futile, special session?
The answer, say observers, is clear. Democrats want people all across the state to know what state government could do with the additional $1.6 billion that Republicans are leaving on the table after cutting the expansion from the governor’s budget at their first meeting last month. He is pairing Medicaid expansion with turning down money for specific projects and wants that message spread widely.
The governor says another reason for the session is the news this week that Wisconsin’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money was decreased by $700 million to $2.5 billion because Wisconsin has higher employment numbers.
Evers called the special session to begin May 25 at noon and made an enticing, six-page list of projects that could be covered with $850 million of the additional funds, if only GOP leaders would relent. The projects are built into his proposed expansion bill so Republicans could be sure that’s how the money would be spent.
Name a community, there’s probably something its residents would like on the list.
Do you live in Wisconsin Rapids? The list includes a $50 million loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to the Consolidated Cooperative for the purchase of the Verso Paper Mill. And if you are from Park Falls, there could be $15 million loaned for a similar purchase of the Park Falls Pulp and Paper Mill.
From Green Bay? How about moving the C. Reiss coal piles to a plant and getting a $2 million grant for a visitors’ center. Veterans could have housing benefits and their application fees waived for the University of Wisconsin and farmers could get tech-college financial help. There are environmental stewardship projects throughout the state.
Manitowoc could get a housing development, Darlington could get funds toward building a new hospital and Black River Falls could get a cranberry research station. Other projects include renovating the Potawatomi Observation Tower in Door County and creating a Food + Farm Exploration Center in Stevens Point and PFAS remediation throughout the state.
The expansion money in the bill would also provide funds for local roads, broadband expansion, Black maternal health, community health care worker grants, PFAS remediation, lead pipe replacement, rural EMS and a Hmong Cultural Center.
Many of the items are tied to health care, including mental health projects that have received bipartisan support. There are more mental health beds for Wausau and Eau Claire as well as other locations for emergency detention. There is money for community health care worker grants and an opioid and meth data-tracking system. Firearm suicide prevention gets support, as do a variety of community health clinics and projects.
And if Assembly Speaker Robin Vos finds nothing enticing on that list of mostly one-time expenditures that could be covered outside of state general funding, his home territory of Racine would receive $53 million to “support the establishment the Racine Community Health Center (RCHC) as a Federally Qualified Health Center in Racine County.” The document notes that the City of Racine and Racine County and community partners are working on this initiative to “provide affordable health care to underserved residents.”
“There’s even more urgency to do everything we can to ensure our state has the resources to bounce back and our economy can recover from COVID-19,” said Evers. “Here’s the bottom line: we can’t let politics get in the way of doing the right thing. It’s time to put people first and focus on making fiscally and morally responsible decisions that will improve not only the health of our people but help our state’s bottom line — we can do both.”
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Republicans began objecting to the Medicaid expansion when it was first introduced with “Obamacare,” arguing that they could not be sure that money would continue to flow into the future, a worry that thus far has not come to pass. More recent Republican arguments against the expansion, which would raise the amount of income an individual could make while qualifying for BadgerCare (from $12,880 up to $17,609) is that it is an “expansion of welfare.”
Republican leadership from both houses released joint statements slamming Evers’ move and declaring, “We intend to gavel out this unserious stunt.”
“In Wisconsin, there is no coverage gap between BadgerCare and the heavily-subsidized federal exchanges. Everyone who wants insurance in our state has access and options,” said Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu. “Our unique-to-Wisconsin solution is working, and we will not shift tens of thousands of people off their private insurance to a government-run system.”
Republican Joint Finance co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born called the bill “nothing more than a mini budget advanced by the Governor because he didn’t get his way through the normal budget process.”
Democrats and health care advocates applauded the move.
“Public support for accepting billions of federal dollars to expand health care access for working Wisconsinites struggling to make ends meet is so overwhelming, and the policy case so strong, that any further opportunity to debate the merits of the issue increases the likelihood of passage,” Citizen Action of Wisconsin Executive Director Robert Kraig said. “It is long overdue for the State of Wisconsin to stop wasting hundreds of millions of public dollars to cover fewer people.”
Joe Zepecki, Protect Our Care’s state director, said the move will put “obstructionist” Republican legislators on the spot and referenced Obamacare in a statement saying, “It’s one thing for a legislator to oppose a public policy passed by a President they didn’t like a decade ago. It’s another thing entirely for them to choose fiscally irresponsible intransigence over projects that will create jobs and strengthen their local community.”
On Monday the Kaiser Family Foundation released research examining more than 600 studies on the impact of Medicaid expansion, which was highlighted by state Department of Health Services Sect.-designee Karen Timberlake. The study showed that in states that expanded Medicaid, residents sought more preventative care and screenings, saving money and lives. It also reported hospitals providing less uncompensated care — particularly in rural areas — resulting in a decrease in rural hospital closures.
Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) said he hoped Republicans would work with Evers on this, diverging from past practice “of gaveling in and gaveling out of the special session in less than a minute as they have done on other important legislation recently.”
“In a blatantly political move, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature has refused to expand Medicaid simply because it was a Democratic policy and they fear handing Democrats a political win,” said Hebl in a statement. “ It should not matter whose idea it was — what should matter is the health and safety of the people of our state. Since Medicaid expansion began, we have been pleading to expand access to health care in Wisconsin. It has fallen on deaf ears.”
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