Regional health insurers hire Nygren to lead trade association

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    A former Republican lawmaker who spent much of his latter career advancing treatment-focused approaches to opioid addiction but who also opposed expanding Wisconsin’s Medicaid program will take the helm of a trade group for regional health insurance plans.

    Rep. John Nygren

    John Nygren, who stepped down two weeks ago after a 14-year career in the Wisconsin Assembly — and after easily winning reelection Nov. 3 with 69% of the vote — was named Monday as the new executive director of the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans. The association lobbies on behalf of a dozen primarily local and regional health insurers and managed care plans in Wisconsin.  (Its membership does not include the large national health insurers that do business in the state.)

    Nygren, an insurance broker from Marinette, had just been reappointed co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee when he announced he was leaving the office.

    In a Dec. 8 interview with Wisconsin Eye, Nygren alluded to his new job without discussing the details or naming his new employer.

    The position was one he applied for in February, he said, but the organization put off its search because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no other prospects, he decided to run for another term. The position “re-presented itself recently,” and he decided to pursue it again.

    Nygren is perhaps best known statewide for his efforts to pass 34 measures to address opioid addiction, many of them aimed at encouraging treatment and expanding treatment resources. He took up the issue, starting with legislation in 2013, in response to the struggles his daughter had with opioids that led to her heroin addiction. Cassie Nygren was sentenced to prison in February for her role in the death of a friend from an overdose.

    In hiring Nygren, the health plans association has tapped a critic of accepting federal subsidies to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Along with the rest of the Legislature’s Republican majority, Nygren opposed Medicaid expansion, most recently when the Republicans rewrote Gov. Tony Evers’ 2019-2021 budget bill to remove that provision.

    In his Wisconsin Eye interview, Nygren held to that position, saying he favored “a competitive market” in health insurance. “Putting more people on government care versus private health insurance is something I’m always going to be against,” he said.

    The health plans association, however, hasn’t publicly staked out an agenda on that issue. Its lobbying reports to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission don’t indicate support for or opposition to Medicaid expansion, and the association’s website includes no statements on the subject.

    A report earlier this year from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation concluded that Wisconsin could expand the population covered by Medicaid — called BadgerCare here — by 120,000 people if it took the ACA federal subsidy.

    While some of those may currently purchase insurance privately through the health insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, as many as 95,000 more state residents would get coverage with the federal expansion, while saving the state as much as $300 million, according to estimates in a report this fall produced by the advocacy group Kids Forward.

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    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.