By LeAnn R. Ralph
ELK MOUND — Accepting federal money to expand Medicaid and expanding the school voucher program were two of the topics constituents discussed during a listening session for area legislators at the Elk Mound Village Hall May 20.
State Senator Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls (Senate District 23) and state Representative Tom Larson of Colfax (67th Assembly District) sponsored the listening session.
Of the approximately 20 people who attended the session, many supported the idea of Wisconsin accepting federal money to expand Medicaid/ BadgerCare.
Governor Scott Walker announced in February that he would not accept money from the federal government to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Health Care Act.
The Medicaid expansion would apply to people earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or a little over $15,000 a year.
Governor Walker was the 14th Republican governor to refuse federal money for expanding Medicaid and instead developed his own plan that would reportedly make fewer people eligible for Medicaid.
One woman from Altoona who serves as a foster parent said BadgerCare helps children get back with their parents, because when the parents qualify for BadgerCare, they are able to get the medications they need to deal with a variety of issues, such as alcohol and drug problems, depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder.
When the parents do not have access to the medical care they need, the children stay in the foster care system longer, she said.
Another man said he had fallen off a 16-foot ladder at home and had suffered severe injuries requiring doctors’ visits, therapy, and medications.
Without BadgerCare, the man said he might not be walking around now.
Another woman spoke on behalf of a young couple who could not be at the listening session. The young man is blind and is a student at UW-Eau Claire, and his significant other, who is employed at a grocery store, recently gave birth prematurely to their son. The baby spent three weeks in intensive care, and both the baby and the father require the care of specialists.
The woman described the couple as the “working poor.” Without BadgerCare, the cost for people who cannot afford health care is transferred to others through higher health insurance premiums or higher medical costs, she said.
Another person noted that the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has reported that not accepting the federal Medicaid expansion money would cost Wisconsin taxpayers an additional $734 million.
People in Wisconsin pay federal taxes, and yet, Wisconsin residents end up receiving $800 less per person in federal money than people living in other states, she said.
Much to the surprise of those in the audience, Senator Moulton said he supported the idea of accepting federal money for expanding Medicaid.
“I have said in our caucus, the fiscally responsible thing to do is to take the expansion,” Senator Moulton said.
Because no one knows for sure how the Affordable Health Care Act will work with the insurance exchanges, accepting the federal money will ensure that more people receive medical care, he said.
Nine other governors have already changed their positions on Medicaid, Senator Moulton noted.
Representative Larson said he was “not sure” whether Wisconsin should accept the federal money and that Wisconsin should “hold back” on accepting federal money until there is more information on how the insurance exchanges would work.
The United States is already trillions of dollars in debt, and the states cannot depend on federal money, he said.
“Philosophically, I agree with the governor that we need to get people less dependant on the government. I understand what the governor is trying to do,” Senator Moulton said.
“We will need to reach a compromise somewhere along the line,” he said.
Senator Moulton noted that the listening session was not intended to be a debate.
“I will bring your concerns to (the Legislature),” he said.
Several people also spoke out against Governor Walker’s proposed expansion of the school voucher program, which would divert more taxpayer dollars away from public schools and would give the money to private schools.
Chris Hambuch-Boyle, who was recently elected to the Eau Claire school board, said that it was time for people to decide if they want public education.
If taxpayers in Wisconsin pay for two school systems, public and private, “public education will be decimated,” she said.
Hambuch-Boyle read a story from a book by a business owner who had at one time advocated that public schools should be run like a business. The business owner ran an ice cream company, and blueberry ice cream was a specialty.
When the owner spoke at one school, a teacher asked if he sent back blueberries that did not meet the company’s high standards. The business owner said of course he sent back bad blueberries.
The teacher pointed out that public schools cannot turn away students and must take everyone who walks through the door, and that is why schools cannot be run like a business.
“I think we will see something different in the budget (than the governor’s proposal to expand the voucher program,)” Representative Larson said.
Hambuch-Boyle said the Eau Claire school district has made $32 million in budget cuts since the state-imposed revenue caps were put in place in 1993.
“Our citizens will have to decide if they even want public schools,” she reiterated.
Another woman noted that while school districts have been cutting their budgets, the class sizes have been getting larger, the buildings are crumbling, the school boards cannot raise taxes and it is difficult to get referendums passed to do routine maintenance.
Senator Moulton said that seven Wisconsin senators have indicated that they “have problems” with school vouchers being in the budget.
Representative Larson said he agreed that school vouchers should not be in the budget and also said he had signed a bill that would take the vocational school funding off the property tax rolls and would substitute a one cent sales tax of which 7/8 would go vocational schools and 1/8 would go toward paying vocational school debt.
After the listening session in Elk Mound, Representative Larson and Senator Moulton were on their way to Sand Creek for another listening session.