Saturday, October 22, 2011

Residents voice concerns about proposed BadgerCare cuts

Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Dennis Smith, secretary of the Department of Health Services, receives 2,000 signatures from Citizen Action of Wisconsin at a public hearing Friday in West Allis as Deputy Secretary Kitty Rhoades looks on. The signatures are from residents concerned about proposed health cuts. MORE PHOTOS

State hears comments on plans to trim Medicaid budget

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West Allis - Concern, frustration and, at times, anger characterized the overall mood at a town-hall meeting Friday on the state's plan to trim an estimated $554 million over two years from the BadgerCare Plus and Medicaid budget.
The Department of Health Services this month released dozens of proposed changes in the programs that provide health coverage to about one in five people in Wisconsin, ranging from children in low-income families to adults with severe disabilities to people living in nursing homes.
The changes are designed to close the state's budget shortfall while maintaining coverage for people, said Dennis Smith, secretary of the Department of Health Services. They also would have minimal effect on people who are disabled or elderly and impoverished, Smith said.
But Smith and Kitty Rhoades, deputy secretary, on Friday encountered more than a little wariness at the town hall meeting held at the Tommy G. Thompson Youth Center at State Fair Park. The hearing was scheduled to last five hours.
The proposed changes will be reviewed by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee and also will require the federal government's approval.
They are projected to generate savings as small as $200,000 by improving the coordination of care for people with HIV/AIDS and as large as $105.9 million by freezing enrollment in the Family Care and other programs designed to help keep people who are disabled or elderly out of nursing homes.
The temporary cap on enrolling in Family Care generated the most comments Friday. Several speakers noted that the waiting lists were beginning to grow.
One of the most controversial proposals is to limit the benefits of an estimated 215,000 people now covered by BadgerCare Plus. That program covers families with children younger than 19 and household incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level - or $44,700 for a family of four.
Under the department's proposal, people with incomes from 100% to 200% of the federal poverty level - $22,350 to $44,700 for that family of four - would be put in a plan with limited coverage for prescription drugs, co-pays and other limits.
The coverage would be comparable to what people receive when they have health insurance through an employer, Smith said.
About half of the adults with incomes in that range now get health insurance through an employer, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin.
The department also has proposed requiring people with incomes above 150% of the federal poverty level, or $33,525 for a family of four, to pay 5% of household income for coverage. "We are asking individuals to pay what we think is a fair value for what they receive," Smith said.
Smith said most people who get insurance through an employer pay an average of 15% of the premium.
The national averages are actually higher. But Smith is comparing two separate figures - the percent of a premium is not the same as percent of household income.
The proposed increase means that a single mother with two children who makes just under $28,000 would pay $116 a month instead of $10 a month in premiums.
"The problem is the families we are talking about already are stretched thin," said Barbara Beckert, of Disability Rights Wisconsin.
The state also has not done an analysis of the number of people who could lose coverage because of the increase in premiums, she said.
Her main concern is the unintended consequences from the proposed changes.
But Beckert also understands the dilemma facing the department as it works to find more than $500 million in savings. "There are a lot of difficult choices here."
But that didn't lessen the frustration among some who criticized the administration's and Legislature's priorities in cutting programs.
"You know in your hearts it is going make it harder for people," said Devaci Williams, 16.

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