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Sunday - January 21, 2018 11:40 pm

Walker, in turnabout, moves to stabilize health insurance market

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MADISON, Wis. — In a tack to the left in an election year, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced Sunday that he wants a state law that would bar insurers from denying a person health coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

He also wants Wisconsin to join Minnesota, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska in obtaining a federal waiver to offer reinsurance, a move designed to lower premiums for people in the private insurance marketplace.

Walker said the steps are necessary because “Washington failed to act” on passing a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare” — in effect criticizing fellow Republicans who control Congress and the White House.

Democrats accused Walker of hypocrisy. He has been a consistent and vocal critic of the health care law, refused to participate in the federal marketplace and repeatedly advocated for the law’s repeal and replacement. He also previously suggested he might have Wisconsin opt out of the law’s pre-existing condition rules.

“Give me a break on this pivot,” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said. “The problem we’re trying to fix was self-inflicted by Governor Walker.”

By seeking a reinsurance waiver, Walker is taking a step to make the private marketplace in Wisconsin more stable and affordable for more than 200,000 people in it. He plans to use his State of the State speech on Wednesday to ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve the proposals this year, and said leaders are on board.

His ideas, including seeking a lifetime federal waiver for the state’s popular discount prescription drug program known as SeniorCare, have had bipartisan support in the past. Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he expected Democrats to largely support the measures.

“Obviously the governor’s done some polling and he’s finding out he’s on the wrong side of history on health insurance and health care,” Erpenbach said.

Walker has been embracing ideas originally championed in whole or in part by Democrats as he seeks a third term in November. Earlier this month he called for closing the state’s troubled juvenile prison, which Democrats have pushed for years. And last year, he gave public schools essentially the level of funding requested by state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, a Democrat running against him for governor.

Walker told reporters he’s simply “listening to people across the state. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrat or Republican. I don’t think those are Democrat issues, those are Wisconsin issues. People care about them.”

He said his latest health plan addresses the concerns of people who buy insurance through their employers by guaranteeing that pre-existing conditions will be covered. Even though that’s currently federal law, Walker said it is important that the state guarantee it and provide peace of mind.

Last year, the state Assembly passed a bill that would have done just that. Walker called on the Senate to pass it in the coming weeks.

The state’s discount prescription drug program for those over age 65 has received a federal waiver since 2002. It serves 60,000 seniors a month. The waiver has been extended four times, most recently in 2015. Walker said a permanent waiver would give peace of mind to seniors who rely on the discounted medicine.

Erpenbach doubted such a waiver could be granted without a change in federal law.

Walker’s push to make SeniorCare permanent comes seven years after he proposed cutting membership by forcing enrollees to first sign up for Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, with the state program only covering what the federal one did not.

That was rejected after a bipartisan outcry.

Walker’s other new federal waiver request to offer reinsurance addresses the roughly 200,000 people in Wisconsin who purchase health insurance on the private marketplace under the “Obamacare” law. Reinsurance, which has bipartisan support, basically sets up a pool of money for the government to cover the cost of insurers’ most expensive cases.

Walker estimated his plan would cost $200 million, with the federal government paying 75 percent. He said the state’s share would come from savings from the Medicaid program.

Walker said he expected the program to result in lower rate increases in 2019 and stabilize a market that recently lost several larger insurers including UnitedHealth and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. The state insurance office estimated that premium rates will increase an average of 36 percent this year.

Because of the loss of insurers, this year more than 75,000 people in Wisconsin had to change insurance companies and many of them were limited to one or two choices.

Associated Press

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