Wisconsin Republicans stand by rejection of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' plan to expand Medicaid

Associated Press

The Wisconsin Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee voted Tuesday to stand by its decision to reject Gov. Tony Evers' plan to expand Medicaid, turning down more than $1 billion in federal funding and $324 million in state money savings.

Democrats accused Republicans of being fiscally irresponsible for not taking the Medicaid expansion and for reducing what the governor wanted to spend in a variety of areas including community health programs, dental health initiatives for poor people, crisis intervention services and lead poisoning prevention efforts.

"There is no moral high ground in your choice," said Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor, of Madison. "There is no moral high ground in turning your back on people whose lives you could have saved."

The Joint Finance Committee is working to revise Evers' two-year state budget before voting, perhaps as soon as next week, to send it to the full Legislature. Evers can then sign the budget as passed, use his broad partial veto powers to make changes, or reject the entire $83 billion spending plan.

Republicans defended not expanding Medicaid, saying they didn't want to add a projected 82,000 more people who earn between poverty level and 38% above it to the state's BadgerCare Medicaid program. It makes more sense, Republicans argue, to keep them in the private insurance market where they can qualify for highly subsidized plans sold through the marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act.

Expanding Medicaid wasn't necessary because the state's economy is strong with plenty of available jobs, said Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget committee.

"Yes, we said no to Medicaid expansion — guilty," Nygren said. "But we can also take a strong stand with pride that our state is headed in the right direction."

Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, the other co-chair, said the committee was investing in people, not programs.

"We're not expanding welfare, that was the big concern," she said.

The additional state funding Republicans approved included a $77 million increase for the Wisconsin Shares program that provides money to working parents for child care, $30 million more for nursing homes, an additional $37 million for personal care workers and $27 million more for direct caregivers in the Family Care program. Nygren said those increases, some of which go beyond what Evers proposed, were responsive to what people around the state wanted.

"The governor's proposal was lacking, we exceeded it," Nygren said.

The committee voted to cut state payments to Milwaukee County for child welfare services by $14 million, a move that Democratic state Rep. Evan Goyke called a "screwing" for the city he represents. Republicans also rejected Evers' proposal to repeal drug screening and work requirements for recipients of the state's FoodShare food stamp program.

In total, Republicans voted to spend about $611 million more in state money over two years on the Health Services and Children and Family Services departments.

Evers took his victory over longtime Medicaid expansion opponent, former Gov. Scott Walker, as a sign that voters wanted to join the majority of other states in accepting the federal money. But Republicans made it one of the first items removed from his budget proposal. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been particularly steadfast against, saying last month that Medicaid will be expanded "over our dead bodies."

Evers has been undeterred, vowing to "fight like hell" to save his proposal, pointing to public opinion polls showing support as high as 70%.

To date, Wisconsin has missed out on $1.1 billion in federal money for Medicaid expansion. It is one of only 14 states that have not accepted Medicaid expansion money and the only one that did a partial expansion to cover people up to 100% of poverty without taking the money.

The Evers plan that Republicans rejected would have increased the Medicaid-eligible income level from 100% of poverty to 138%. That would raise eligible annual income from $25,750 for a family of four to $35,535. For a single person, the income cutoff would go from $12,490 to $17,236.

About half of the 82,000 people expected to qualify for Medicaid already have insurance now through subsidized plans sold through the marketplace. The other half do not have insurance.

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