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Gov. Evers Calls Special Session On Medicaid Expansion, Republicans Not On Board

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Wisconsin Public Television
Gov. Tony Evers during his first biennial budget address in 2019 at the State Capitol.

Updated Friday at 8:15 a.m. CDT

Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday called a special session for the Legislature to expand Medicaid in Wisconsin, promising to use $850 million in federal money that would come to the state to pay for an array of economic development projects across the state.

Turning down Medicaid expansion now will mean Republicans are also rejecting economic development projects in their own legislative districts, Evers said at a free health care clinic in Middleton before signing an executive order calling the special session.

“It’s time, enough politics," Evers said.

Republican legislative leaders were quick to denounce the plan as a stunt.

“This is a thinly-veiled political maneuver,” said Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Senate President Chris Kapenga in a joint statement.

If Evers wanted to pay for the projected detailed in his bill, he could use some of the other $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money coming to the state that’s not tied to Medicaid expansion, Republicans said.

Republicans said they will immediately end the special session without debate, let alone a vote, on the bill.

State leaders recently learned Wisconsin will be receiving $700 million fewer dollars in federal coronavirus relief money because of its improved unemployment rate.

On Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers spoke at a news conference at the United Community Center in Milwaukee Thursday, and said one way around that loss is to expand Medicaid.

“We can't let politics get in the way of doing what's right and what's best for our state. It's time to put people first and focus on making the fiscally and morally responsible decisions that will improve not only our health care in the state of Wisconsin, but also our state's bottom line," Evers said.

Evers has previously requested to expand BadgerCare in two state budget proposals — asks that were nixed by GOP legislators.

Under the enticement included in the coronavirus relief bill adopted by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, the federal government would boost its share of costs in the regular Medicaid program, which offers coverage for the poorest Americans. The bump in federal funding would last two years for the states that join the Medicaid expansion.

The federal COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed in March would provide Wisconsin more than $1 billion in new, temporary savings if the state's Medicaid program, or BadgerCare, is expanded. That additional money would be for two years, but is on top of $635 million the state would save over two years due to a higher federal reimbursement through Medicaid expansion.

According to a 2018 report by the state fiscal bureau, Wisconsin would have received an additional $2.8 billion in savings between 2013 and 2019 under full Medicaid expansion.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from West Point, said Wisconsin shouldn’t pass up the $1 billion in federal money.

“If we don’t take it now, I highly doubt that opportunity will ever come again,” Erpenbach said.

Under Evers’ bill, $850 million would go toward a wide array of projects and other needs while $150 million would go into a state savings account.

“You know from Superior to Darlington, Eau Claire to Manitowoc, Wausau to Racine, and every place in between, we're going to invest these savings, we realized, by expanding BadgerCare and invest that into more than 50 projects across the state," Evers said.

The projects to be funded include $200 million to pay for broadband expansion; $100 million to help replace lead service lines for private users of public water systems; $100 million for road and other infrastructure improvement; and $50 million for a loan to a cooperative to buy the Verso Paper Mill in Wisconsin Rapids and $15 million for a cooperative to buy the Park Falls Pulp and Paper Mill in Park Falls.

The bill would also authorize $30 million for a genomic sequencing wing at the State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison; $15 million in grants for community health workers; $5.5 million for emergency medical services in rural areas; $4 million for a western Wisconsin forensic center; and $2 million for a new visitor center for Green Bay.

In Milwaukee, those projects would include money for the United Community Center Childcare and Early Learning Center and the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.

Thirty-six other states, including some led by Republicans, have already accepted Medicaid expansion. Two more — Missouri and Oklahoma — are scheduled to begin their expansions in July. Wisconsin has done a partial expansion, but not done enough to capture billion of dollars in savings and additional funding from the federal government.

Expanding Medicaid has long been supported by Democrats and health care advocates in Wisconsin, while Republicans have branded it as welfare expansion and said there's no guarantee that federal aid would continue.

Republicans said in a statement Evers’ bill is “nothing more than a mini-budget advanced by the Governor because he didn’t get his way through the normal budget process.” And that they don’t want to “shift tens of thousands of people off their private insurance to a government run system.”

Republicans point out there is no “coverage gap” in Wisconsin: all low-income residents in the state either have access to Medicaid or subsidies to help them purchase private coverage in the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says nearly half of people who would be eligible for BadgerCare under the expansion are currently uninsured.

Accepting federal money available through the Affordable Care Act would increase the minimum income threshold to qualify from 100% of the federal poverty rate to 138%, which would increase the income eligibility for a single person from $12,880 a year to $17,774.

That would make about 91,000 more people eligible for BadgerCare Plus in Wisconsin.

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