Family Care, IRIS Victory Shows That Citizen Action Still Works

By State Senator Julie Lassa

Seniors and people with disabilities won a tremendous victory recently when the state Department of Health Services withdrew its plan to privatize two vital health care programs.  More than 55,000 Wisconsin citizens rely on Family Care and IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct), two Medicaid-funded programs that provide home care and other services to help disabled and elderly individuals live with independence and dignity.  I have heard from hundreds of constituents who were scared that the changes the administration wanted to make would threaten their way of life.

Since the inception of these programs, Family Care and IRIS have been managed by Managed Care Organizations, regional nonprofits with boards of directors that represent various stakeholder groups. As part of the state budget, Governor Walker tried to abolish these organizations and replace them with agencies that would have operated like insurance companies.  Instead of being run by local decision makers, the programs could be managed by out-of-state insurance companies.  Naturally, the disabled and elderly people who rely on Family Care or IRIS were concerned that this kind of arrangement might force them to change their health care providers, take away services they need or provide less flexibility for them to make their own decisions about their care.

Because Family Care and IRIS weren’t broken, there was never any real reason to fix them.  These programs provide a high level of care, and their governance structure insured that management decisions reflected the needs of local people – not a corporate bottom line.  Above all, they save taxpayers money by caring for people in their homes instead of institutionalizing them in much more expensive nursing homes and long-term care facilities.  The administration claimed it was proposing the measure to control costs.  However, DHS was never able to prove that this new model would either save Wisconsin money or provide better services to the frail elderly and people with disabilities who use it.

In short, the only sure benefits from changing Family Care and IRIS to a privatized system would be for insurance companies.  Fortunately, the seniors and disabled individuals who felt their health and security threatened by these changes turned their anxiety into action.  By the thousand, they contacted DHS and legislators to let them know how vital these programs are to helping them live fulfilling lives.  They shared how their caregivers allow them to cope with their disabilities and remain in their homes.

Their pressure worked. Before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee could approve the plan, DHS Secretary Kitty Rhoads wrote to the Joint Finance co-chairs to withdraw it, citing the “comments, feedback, and questions” that the department had received.  The two programs aren’t entirely out of the woods.  The statutory changes that led to the plan are still on the books, and Secretary Rhoads left open the possibility that DHS might try again.  But for now at least, Family Care and IRIS will remain the same effective and responsive programs they have been.

This victory is great news for the elderly and disabled individuals who rely on Family Care and IRIS, and it’s good news for the rest of us too.  When the people of Wisconsin let their voices be heard long and loud enough, it’s still possible to change the course of state government.