Wednesday, March 14, 2012

State budget committee approves Medicaid changes

MADISON — A plan to raise premiums for some of the poorest people enrolled in Wisconsin’s Medicaid programs passed a Legislature budget committee Wednesday, but officials say it won’t affect enrolled children, pregnant women, disabled people or the elderly.
The Joint Committee on Finance voted along party lines to approve the plan proposed by the state Department of Health Services, who wants to lower the income level at which families must pay a premium. That would affect about 44,000 participants who previously didn’t have to pay.
When the proposal passed, a packed room erupted into shouts. Some chanted “Shame!” as they held signs in support of BadgerCare, a program that provides medical care to poor families and adults.
DHS Secretary Dennis Smith, who said the department faces a budget gap if the changes weren’t approved, said the plan would keep more people enrolled in the programs like BadgerCare.
Gov. Scott Walker’s original proposal would have resulted in 65,000 poor adults and children leaving the programs, either because of eligibility or because they couldn’t afford coverage.
According to data from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the new income pay scale would only drop about 23,000 people.
Smith endorsed the premium changes, which he said would not affect children, pregnant women, disabled people or the elderly.
“I think they’re fair. I think they’re equitable,” Smith said.
The monetary request is part of a tentative agreement between DHS and federal health officials as the state officials try to close what the Fiscal Bureau said would be a $141 million shortfall by July 2013.
The committee’s four Democrats took turns questioning Smith about the possible impact on roughly 10,000 benefit participants — the number of people the bureau said would leave Medicaid programs in response to the increased premiums.
But Smith defended the figure, saying it’s a matter of perspective of what one considers affordable health care.
Committee chairman Robin Vos, R-Burlington, defended the request and said a few extra dollars in weekly contributions to a health care premium was still going “above and beyond” to ensure residents they can have affordable health care.
“It’s a very reasonable plan,” he said.
Wisconsin’s Medicaid programs currently cover about 1.1 million people. The number has grown by nearly 10 times the rate of the state’s population during the past two decades, driven both by need and by expanded program offerings.

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