As the Republican-controlled Legislature winds down its session, a new bill Democrats introduced Monday would create a public option for BadgerCare, the state's Medicaid program. Proponents say the proposal would increase access to health care in Wisconsin amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a Legislative Reference Bureau analysis of the bill, the state Department of Health Services would be required to ask for federal approval for certain individuals over BadgerCare's income limit to be able to purchase coverage through the program. The bill would also create a state health insurance exchange in place of the federal Healthcare.gov platform.
The bill would also expand Medicaid coverage under the terms of the federal Affordable Care Act, or ACA, for people with an income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. It would additionally allow businesses of 50 or fewer employees to be able to purchase coverage.
Patrick DePula, owner of the Salvatore's Tomato Pies restaurant chain in Madison, said at a press conference Monday that insurance has been a significant expense in the close to three years the chain has offered health insurance to its employees.
"It's not something that we do easily, especially during the pandemic, when we saw the sales plunge and struggled to continue to pay our health insurance premiums for our employees," DePula said. "In order to get working families back into the workforce, we need to be able to compete with larger employers in Wisconsin."
DePula said when he started the business, his family wasn't able to afford health insurance. When he got a surgical procedure done, he said he had to pay it off over four years.
"I'm grateful that I was able to do it, but not everybody can," DePula said.
Michelle Tressler, owner of Green Bay's Hinterland Brewery, said health insurance remains "tremendously expensive" to offer to her employees.
"It still is unaffordable as ever, for us, but really, more importantly now, it's unaffordable for our employees," Tressler said. "It just becomes impossible to continue for us to afford our portion of the premiums, but much, much more importantly, for the individual employees to afford their portion."
The bill marks the latest chapter in the near-decade-long saga of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
In 2013, then-Gov. Scott Walker rejected the expansion of BadgerCare. While current Gov. Tony Evers hoped Medicaid expansion would be addressed in a special session he called late last May, Republicans in both legislative chambers convened and adjourned without taking any action on his proposal. Earlier the same month, Republicans voted to remove Medicaid expansion from Evers' proposed state budget, along with a host of other provisions.
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According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Wisconsin is one of 12 states to have not adopted the ACA's Medicaid expansion.
Bill sponsor state Rep. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, said she believes health care is a human right.
"It's about moving money away from a health care system that is driven by profit, and instead prioritizing the health and wellness of everyday Wisconsinites," Shelton said. "Our current health care systems are leaving too many behind, especially when they need health care the most."
State Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde, D-Milwaukee, said the proposal would help address the equity component of health care.
"Oftentimes, you find many in our communities, particularly Black and brown folks, who find themselves less healthier than their white counterparts," Omokunde said. "What we want to make sure is that, especially during times like the COVID-19 pandemic, that people have access to a primary caregiver."
Robert Kraig, executive director of the non-profit Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said the bill would provide "predictable insurance for all low-income workers."
"Everyone gets something out of this," Kraig said.
Kraig said the bill would also help small businesses.
"The vast majority of small employers do not provide health insurance," Kraig said. "The vast majority want to, but can't afford it, and it's the main reason they lose good workers."
With Republicans remaining in control of the state Legislature, the bill would be unlikely to pass in either chamber.
Timing is also a factor. While there's still one tentative day of session for the Senate in March, the Assembly is likely done for the year.