Counties push back against Walker's BadgerCare decision
Written by Sari Lesk, Stevens Point Journal Media
STEVENS POINT – Portage County might join several other Wisconsin counties demanding that Gov. Scott Walker's administration accept federal money to expand BadgerCare .
Second District County Board Member Joanne Suomi is leading the charge in Portage County to add a referendum question to the November ballot to ask for citizens' opinion on Walker's decision not to accept the money. Portage County is among at least 11 Wisconsin counties that have pursued BadgerCare referendums in one form or another.
Although the referendum question is advisory and wouldn't require any action following the vote, Suomi said she thinks it is important for people to share their opinions with state leadership.
"It gives the opportunity to have a voice in what the state is doing at the state level," Suomi said.
Walker was among about 25 governors who declined federal funding to expand Medicaid in their states. Under the Affordable Care Act, states were allowed to expand their Medicaid programs to cover people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level. Walker chose to expand the program only for those earning 100 percent of the poverty level and said his approach would keep everyone living below the poverty line covered.
So far, Eau Claire, Dunn and Milwaukee counties have voted to include BadgerCare questions on November ballots. County committees in Outagamie, Dane, Washburn and Bayfield counties have recommended similar moves and all await county board action.
The question will also go before committees in Jefferson and Lincoln counties this month. Monroe County voted at the committee level not to ask the question of its constituents.
Many of the counties that include the referendum question are following Eau Claire County's lead for wording, where the question will read "Shall the governor accept federal funding for the expansion of Medicaid/BadgerCare in Wisconsin to cover persons up to 138% of the federal poverty level?"
Suomi joined the initiative after getting involved with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a statewide advocacy group that has been encouraging Wisconsin lawmakers to accept the federal funds for BadgerCare for more than a year.
"The whole question of whether the state should take the federal funds was never really up to the citizens to decide," said Kevin Kane, lead organizer of the group based in Milwuakee. "There hasn't been an election where people had this as an option."
State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she hopes the referendum question creates pressure for state legislators to push for the Medicaid expansion.
"The BadgerCare expansion has been a really great opportunity for the people of Wisconsin, since the federal government will cover 100 percent of the costs for the first three years and 90 percent of the costs after that," she said. "It makes sense fiscally for us to accept this money."
Walker's office, however, said that "referendums are not a matter for the governor's office," and that his reforms ensure access to health care for everyone in the state.
"For the first time, everyone living in poverty has access to the health care through Medicaid," Press Secretary Laurel Patrick said in an email. "As a result of Gov. Walker's reforms, 81,731 Wisconsinites living in poverty now have access to health care through Medicaid."
Shankland, however, is concerned for the approximately 84,700 people she said would benefit from the $2.4 billion the state is eligible to receive from the federal government to expand Medicaid.
"When you can take those federal dollars, you should do it if it helps your people," she said. "We're not expending any new funds. The state is losing money overall."
Shankland said the state has until 2016 to accept the money.
Of the thousands of people across the state without coverage, 852 are in Portage County, Shankland said. Still, Suomi said her suggestion to add the referendum question in November was met largely with dissent.
County Board Member Jeanne Dodge said she is concerned about how adding the question might affect the county's relationship with the state. She also said she thinks it's the county's job to carry out the state's decisions.
"I don't particularly want the state telling me how to vote on an issue at the local level, so I guess maybe I feel that same way going the other direction," Dodge said.
How Medicaid expansion would affect central Wisconsin:
Adults not covered: 1,958
Federal dollars available: $56,480,000
Adults not covered: 852
Federal dollars available: $24,580,000
Adults not covered: 4,090
Federal dollars available: $118,000,000
Adults not covered: 26
Federal dollars available: $740,000
Adults not covered: 386
Federal dollars available: $11,130,000
Source: Legislative Fiscal Bureau