The debate in the Wisconsin Legislature over turning down millions of dollars in federal funding to expand Medicaid was painful to watch. And now Wisconsin is reaping the results of that awful decision, even as states around us benefit from fully implementing the Affordable Care Act, including the Medicaid expansion.
The contrast is stark: Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites are losing their health care coverage for no reason at all. In fact, it is costing our state money to deny them coverage.
And yet our governor doggedly persists in his mission to turn away federal help and shrink the existing BadgerCare/Medicaid program.
Just before Thanksgiving, Gov. Scott Walker announced he would give the 72,000 people he is kicking off BadgerCare a reprieve. Because of glitches in the Affordable Care Act, he will give them until March 31 to sign up for the health insurance exchange. That would seem a lot more generous if the governor were not also proposing to pay for the extension by not providing health care coverage to another 83,000 even poorer citizens.
It is, as Sen. Tim Cullen described it in a letter to colleagues, a "Sophie's Choice" approach.
Contrast that with other states, like Connecticut, Washington and Kentucky, where Democratic governors accepted federal Medicaid funds and now can offer health care coverage to everyone who makes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. That would include a significant portion of the folks who are getting kicked off BadgerCare and all of the 83,000 Wisconsinites who, under Walker's plan, will now have to make it through the winter with no health care coverage at all.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, the governors of those three states explained how the Affordable Care Act had created tens of thousands of jobs, saved their states money and allowed thousands of people to get health care coverage for the first time:
"The Affordable Care Act has been successful in our states because our political and community leaders grasped the importance of expanding health care coverage and have avoided the temptation to use health care reform as a political football."
If only that were the case in Wisconsin.
Which brings me back to the original debate over turning down federal Medicaid money. I attended the hearing in the Joint Finance Committee when that fateful decision was made.
As one Republican committee member made the case that it would "put everybody on an even playing field" to move the working poor off Medicaid and into the private insurance market, a woman who had come to testify jumped up and shouted, "Hey, let's put everybody on an even playing field! Why don't you work for poverty wages?"
The woman was wrestled out the door by police, but a man walked forward from the back of the room to demand of the legislators, "Who pays for your health care?"
"I'm going," he told the police officers who quickly surrounded him.
The woman's screams drifted in from down the hall, "Help me! Help me!"
"That woman's outburst wasn't appropriate," Cory Mason, Democrat of Racine, observed. "But when she was leaving and saying 'Help me,' I don't think that's what we're doing here today.
"We're making it a lot harder for people like her -- for working-class people who have jobs, who have families -- to make it," Rep. Mason added. "And every indication we seem to get from this committee is that we're going to make it harder for working-class folks to make it in this state -- easier for the rich folks, but harder for the working-class folks."
For all the Republicans like to talk about what a mess the Affordable Care Act rollout was because of glitches in the website, it's hard to imagine anything messier than Walker's solution. As Sen. Cullen explained: "Put simply, the [governor's] proposal would pay to cover the second-lowest income group by delaying coverage to the very poorest Wisconsin citizens who have no coverage today."
Cullen offered two possible alternatives.
One option is for the state to accept -- for just three months -- the federal Medicaid money Wisconsin turned down when the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
"The governor has said he opposes taking federal Medicaid dollars because he fears the federal government over time will not keep its commitment," Cullen wrote. "The governor knows, however, that the federal government will keep its commitment for three months!"
Another option, Cullen suggested, is for the state to pay to cover both groups for the three months until March 31, at a cost of $21.5 million.
That's less than one half of 1% of the state's $4.8 billion biennial Medicaid budget, Cullen added.
In Washington, Connecticut and Kentucky, leaders aren't waging a politicized fight against the Affordable Care Act; they're giving thousands of low-income residents health coverage for the first time, and saving money.
Wisconsin's health care mess, and the special session to discuss it this week, shows that citizens are the real losers in states where political leaders decided that, instead of expanding access, they would play politics with health care.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.