MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Tuesday that he and some of his Republican colleagues have discussed temporarily accepting a federally funded expansion of Medicaid against the wishes of GOP Gov. Scott Walker.
Erpenbach talked about the possible deal during the Wisconsin HealthWatch conference, a meeting of policy makers, consumer advocates, and health care industry representatives. Erpenbach was on a panel of Democratic lawmakers, all of whom roundly criticized Walker's recent moves to reject key portions of the federal health care overhaul law.
Walker proposed in his state budget released last week that Wisconsin not accept a federally funded expansion of Medicaid that would expand the state's BadgerCare coverage to 175,000 adults. The expansion would be fully funded by the federal government for three years, with the state eventually paying 10 percent of the costs.
But Walker turned it down, expressing fears that the federal government wouldn't follow through on its commitment and the state would be left shouldering more of the costs. Republican legislative leaders have publicly backed Walker's plan and his rationale for taking a different path.
Walker has proposed Medicaid eligibility restrictions that would cut the program's rolls by about 5,400 people and would make roughly 224,600 state residents eligible to buy federally subsidized private coverage through the state's new health care exchange, or online marketplace.
Walker also turned down the chance to have the state create its exchange, instead deferring to the federal government.
In an interview after the panel discussion, Erpenbach declined to say which Republican senators he had spoken with about a possible Medicaid deal. But he said there were at least a couple who were unhappy with what Walker proposed and were open to alternatives, such as accepting the expansion for a limited time. Erpenbach didn't say what the time period would be.
"I know they will be looking to save some money along the way," Walker said of Republicans who may be willing to deal.
Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, did not comment on the possible deal Erpenbach discussed but reiterated the governor's position on his original proposal.
"Gov. Walker's plan protects state taxpayers now and into the future," Werwie said. "His plan ensures that Medicaid covers the individuals it was originally intended for, those who live in poverty."
A spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Erpenbach had not spoken with him.
"Gov. Scott Walker has stated publicly that his plan would protect Wisconsin from Washington, D.C., and its unpredictable finances which is definitely a concern shared by many in the Legislature," said Fitzgerald's spokesman Tom Evenson.
Republicans hold an 18-15 majority in the Senate. It would take two Republicans to break ranks to stop any Walker proposal.
Republicans have a 60-39 majority in the Assembly. Speaker Robin Vos said no Republicans have expressed to him a desire to accept the Medicaid expansion, and he bluntly assessed the potential deal Erpenbach described: "Not going to happen."
An analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau found the full Medicaid expansion would cost the state $67 million through 2020 while Walker's plan would cost $320 million more. Accepting Walker's plan also would mean a rejection of $4.4 billion in federal funding over that time. His approach would fetch the state about $460 million in federal money.
"What is it going to take for us to get people to wake up and pay attention to this issue because it makes no fiscal sense?" said Bobby Peterson, director of ABC for Health, a Madison-based public interest law firm that works to ensure that children and families get health care benefits and services. It organized Tuesday's meeting.
Dennis Smith, secretary of Walker's Department of Health Services, also spoke at the meeting and defended Walker's approach. He reiterated the governor's concern that Medicaid reimbursements to the state could be cut in the future. Smith announced last week he was resigning his post Thursday to take a position with a Washington-based law firm.
Democratic lawmakers who spoke at the meeting said Walker's approach is motivated by partisan politics and his desire to court national conservatives, not what makes the most sense for Wisconsin.
"I'm not certain what the governor's trying to prove by doing this but I think he's trying to prove a political point to people who don't live in this state," Erpenbach said. "This is a purely political decision and nothing more than that."
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