Post-Crescent: Baldwin pushes expansion of Medicaid under new health care law

January 30, 2013

by Larry Bivins

WASHINGTON — In her first major speech since being sworn in as Wisconsin’s newest U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin signals she will continue her crusade for affordable health care for everyone.

Excerpts from the speech to be delivered today at a three-day Health Action 2013 conference sponsored by Families USA, a consumer health care advocacy group, reinforce Baldwin’s position as a strong supporter of President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Baldwin talks about the importance of passing that law to the millions of Americans whose lives have been altered because they didn’t have health insurance. But the success of the law, she says, will depend largely on how it is implemented over the next several years.

“The Affordable Care Act will be on the books a decade from now. But the good it does will depend on what we do in these critical next few months and years,” Baldwin said in her excerpts.

The Madison Democrat said in addition to reducing costs and increasing the quality of care, health care reform should also be about protecting Americans in times of need. She said Medicaid expansion under the ACA seeks to achieve that goal.

The health care law extends Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled, to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which was $15,415 for an individual and $26,344 for a family of three in 2012.

The federal government would pick up the full cost of expanding the program from 2014, when the law takes effect, through 2016. The government would phase down its share of the cost to 90 percent by 2020, with states paying the rest. The expansion would provide coverage to millions of uninsured adults without children.

“Medicaid expansion is about protecting the most vulnerable Americans at the most vulnerable moments in their lives,” Baldwin said. “Illness and accident can befall anyone. But it shouldn’t mean bankruptcy or financial ruin. Whether we can successfully put pressure on Republican governors to follow through with expanding Medicaid will go a long way toward determining whether this law lives up to that principle.”

Gov. Scott Walker, who has been an outspoken opponent of the health care law, is among those Republican governors who have yet to commit to expanding Medicaid. He also has declined to establish a state health exchange, or marketplace, through which Wisconsinites can shop for health insurance.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor is still mulling over whether to expand the program under BadgerCare.

“The last budget Gov. Walker signed into law increased state taxpayer spending on Medicaid by $1.2 billion — the largest increase in our state’s history, and one of the largest increases per capita in the country,” spokesman Cullen Werwie said. “We’re still evaluating the impact future Medicaid expansions would have on Wisconsin citizens.”

A recent study by Community Advocates Public Policy Institute concluded failure to extend Medicaid to Wisconsin’s low-income citizens could cost state taxpayers millions of dollars and increase the tax burden on employers who don’t provide health insurance to their workers.

David Riemer, a senior fellow with the group, and Michael Bare, a research and program coordinator, urged Walker in a letter to include an increase to BadgerCare to avoid subjecting the state’s employers to a tax hike.

“We do not know exactly how many Wisconsin businesses — if you fail to fill the gaps in BadgerCare eligibility — will be automatically hit with these extra taxes,” Riemer and Bare wrote. “We have every reason to believe, however, that the impact will be an additional tax increase of well over $100 million for our state’s businesses.”

Baldwin and Wisconsin health care advocates say expanding Medicaid under the ACA would bring coverage to more than 200,000 Wisconsin citizens. They cite an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“If you’re a citizen activist, it’s hard to imagine a more important priority right now,” Baldwin said in her speech excerpts. “The Republican governors of Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico have put politics aside to expand Medicaid. I can only hope that Gov. Walker and others follow suit.”

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said the group chose Baldwin as one of its opening keynote speakers because of her unwavering support for health care reform and her seats on the Senate Budget and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. Both committees will play crucial roles in the health care law.

“It’s very exciting,” Pollack said, “not simply because she’s an historic figure, but she has played an enormous and important role in health care reform. “She’s been a leader; she’s going to be a leader, and she’s on the right committees to play a significant role.”

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