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Proponents tout Healthy Wisconsin plan

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Leading proponents of the Wisconsin Senate Democrats' plan to provide health insurance coverage for nearly all residents of the state made their case for the "Healthy Wisconsin" program during a visit to Hudson last Thursday night.

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"This is the absolute most-right thing to do," said State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee that inserted the plan into the 2007-09 state budget bill passed by the Senate.

Steven Williams, a former state trooper and the political and legislative coordinator for AFSCME Council 24, also participated in the forum at St. Croix Marina clubhouse. AFSCME Council 24 is a union representing some 25,000 state employees.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, talked about how special interest groups opposed to health care reform are spending millions of dollars to defeat it. The Democracy Campaign is a government watchdog organization that tracks campaign contributions to politicians.

Under Healthy Wisconsin, employees would pay 4 percent of their wages into a state fund that would be used to purchase health insurance for all state residents under age 65 who are not already covered by federal benefits or the state BadgerCare program for low-income people.

Businesses would contribute approximately 10.5 percent of their payrolls, up to the Social Security tax limit of $97,500 per employee, into the same fund.

An appointed, non-profit board would administer the fund, using it to provide a range of public and private health plans.

The sponsors say private health plans will have to compete for people's business, which will encourage providers to reduce their prices.

The plan would provide the same health care benefits that state legislators have, plus mental health benefits and preventative dental care for children, through networks operating within different regions of the state.

Residents could opt for a fee-for-service plan if they didn't want to participate in one of the networks in their region.

There would be no co-pay for preventative care, for care of children under age 18, and for care provided for chronic conditions.

The plan would include a prescription drug benefit, with co-pays of $5 per prescription for generic drugs and $15 for name-brand drugs.

Supporters of the plan estimate that middle-income families would pay about $750 less per year for health care than they are paying now. Individuals would pay a $300 deductible, and families, a $600 deductible. The only other charge would be a $20 co-pay for doctor visits.

"You have to have a doctor and a delivery method, but it is your choice," Erpenbach told the group of around 30 mostly Democratic Party loyalists who attended the Hudson meeting. He said Wisconsinites would continue to receive care from the private doctors, clinics and hospitals now serving the state.

"It's all about pooling," he said. "We're spreading out the risk. We're spreading out the cost."

Every Wisconsin worker would be eligible for coverage under the program, regardless of pre-existing conditions.

Erpenbach said the first-year cost of Healthy Wisconsin has been estimated at $15.2 billion, compared to the $17.3 billion now spent health care coverage.

And Healthy Wisconsin would cover the 500,000 who currently have no insurance, he said.

"Don't kid yourself. We are paying for the 500,000 people that don't have health insurance, because they do get sick," Erpenbach added.

He said the uninsured often end up in hospital emergency rooms, where they can't be turned away under federal law. The cost of the emergency care is passed on to people who do have health insurance, he said.

Erpenbach said Senate Democrats are "very serious" about getting Healthy Wisconsin passed, but that it won't happen without a fight.

"We have a system where the insurance industry has dictated the cost of our health care and what we can receive," he said.

He singled out State Rep. Kitty Rhoades, R-Hudson, and State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, as two of the state legislators who want to preserve the status quo.

"The biggest fear among everybody that doesn't like this is change," Erpenbach said.

McCabe charged that the reason the state and national governments have failed to address meaningful health care reform is the amount of money that flows into campaign coffers from individuals and groups profiting from the current system.

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly, who removed Healthy Wisconsin from their version of the new state budget, accepted $4.4 million from special interests that oppose universal health care from 1999 through 2006.

The Republicans who control the state Assembly have gotten nearly two-thirds of their campaign contributions from special interests opposed to health care reform during that time, McCabe said.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, meanwhile, has received $7.3 million in campaign contributions, 48 percent of his total contributions, from special interests that oppose Healthy Wisconsin.

Noting Doyle's comment that he favors his own BadgerCare Plus proposal because he "lives in the real world," McCabe said the governor's real world includes an excellent state-run insurance plan that most working people in Wisconsin don't have.

Health care has "exploded" as an issue, McCabe said, not just because of the number of uninsured, but because so many people have expensive and "crummy" insurance.

"Everywhere I go in Wisconsin -- and I talk to a diverse set of audiences -- health care is right there at the top of the agenda as far as the people go," he said.

Yet the health care discussion listened to that evening in Hudson was better than any he had heard in the state Legislature over the past 10 years, McCabe said.

Williams said the union employees he represents have good insurance, but he's been traveling the state promoting Healthy Wisconsin because the price of the insurance has skyrocketed.

State employees, like school teachers, have been sacrificing pay raises to keep their health care benefits, he said.

"Wisconsin needs reform. We need to rein in health care costs," Williams said.

Questions

An owner of a small business and an employee of another small business that were in the audience told the speakers that Healthy Wisconsin in its current form would be unaffordable for their businesses.

"Looking at these numbers, it's really going to be difficult to employ the people we do now," said Wendy Dadez, owner of Dadez Physical Therapy in New Richmond.

Erpenbach admitted that the current Healthy Wisconsin plan would be a hardship for some small businesses and said that legislation would be drafted to fix the problem.

"There will be a business fix coming," he said. "We don't want anybody losing a job over this."

Stephen Metcalf, president and CEO of Air Motions Systems, wanted to know how Healthy Wisconsin would affect his company, which is planning to relocate to this area from Colorado.

Metcalf said his partner had suggested locating just across the border in Minnesota and hiring Wisconsin residents covered by Healthy Wisconsin.

Erpenbach allowed that people residing in Wisconsin and working in Minnesota would be eligible to participate in Healthy Wisconsin by contributing 4 percent of their taxable wages. Minnesota employers would be encouraged to contribute their 10.5 percent for their Wisconsin employees, too, he said.

He allowed that border employment issues may also need to be further addressed by the plan.

Erpenbach argued that Healthy Wisconsin would lower health care costs for most businesses and provide them with a competitive advantage over businesses in other states.

Q & A: Healthy Wisconsin

What will Healthy Wisconsin cost me?

It is estimated that families in the middle range of income will pay about $750 less per year for health care than they are paying now. Those who are employed pay an assessment of 4 percent of their payroll earnings up to the Social Security tax limit of $97,500. It is estimated that the typical Wisconsin worker will pay about $100 per month, with an annual deductible of $300. A typical Wisconsin household will pay about $160 per month, with an annual $600 deductible per family. There will be co-pays of $5 for generic drugs, $15 for name-brand prescriptions and $20 for most doctor visits.

Will it increase taxes?

Healthy Wisconsin is paid for by assessments which replace what individuals and employers currently pay for health insurance. Proponents say it will save the state and local governments $1.3 billion in the first year by reducing what they have to pay for public employee insurance. Proponents say that, overall, Healthy Wisconsin will save $750 million in the first year and $13.8 billion over the next 10 years because it cuts insurance company profits and administrative costs, reduces administrative overhead at hospitals and clinics, encourages preventative care and better management of costly chronic medical conditions, and discourages inappropriate use of emergency rooms.

If you change jobs, will you still be covered?

Yes, your coverage would no longer be tied to your job. You would have coverage regardless of employment or pre-existing conditions. People not working could buy into the plan by paying a 10 percent assessment on their adjusted gross income.

Will the cost of Healthy Wisconsin discourage businesses from locating in Wisconsin or encourage them to leave?

Proponents say no. Lower health care costs will give Wisconsin a competitive advantage over other states. Wisconsin now has some of the highest health care costs in the nation. Proponents claim the plan would reduce employer health care costs by 15 percent to 50 percent.

Will Healthy Wisconsin make the state a magnet for critically ill people from other states?

Proponents say no. The 12-month waiting period when you move to the state without a job is designed to prevent people from moving here just to get health care. People who are critically ill cannot wait a year to get care.

* The above questions and responses are taken from material supporting Healthy Wisconsin provided by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, an advocacy organization working for health care reform and other progressive causes.

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Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
(715) 426-1066
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