Gov. Scott Walker is convinced that he did the right thing when he declined federal Medicaid expansion for Wisconsin, but he’s taking legislative steps to ensure that one of Obamacare’s most vital elements — insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions — remains intact in the Badger State.
“We had hoped Washington, D.C., would take action, but it hasn’t” regarding health care promises Donald Trump and Congress made during the election campaign, Walker said Monday after touring the Cancer Center at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse.
“Where Washington has failed, Wisconsin will step up and lead,” Walker said during a press conference to promote his Health Care Stability Plan, which has bipartisan support in the state Legislature and is expected to be voted on as early as today or Wednesday.
During the Mayo-Franciscan tour before the press conference, Walker chatted with Steve Dougherty of Black River Falls, who was undergoing chemotherapy for prostate cancer, and his wife, Jodi.
Being treated at Mayo-Franciscan is a more convenient one-hour drive to La Crosse than the two-plus-hour trek to Mayo Clinic Health System in Rochester, Minn., Dougherty told Walker.
“I have the advantage of having been to Rochester three times” but generally receiving treatment in La Crosse, he said.
His Mayo-Franciscan and Mayo in Rochester physicians are able to confer routinely via telemedicine, “and this is world-class care,” Dougherty said.
Noting that he has been receiving treatment at the Cancer Center for seven years, Dougherty said, “They’re keeping me alive.”
Walker said his father, the Rev. Llewellyn Walker, also had undergone radiation therapy for cancer, and he himself is on medication to lessen the possibility of contracting the disease from a genetic disposition.
Mayo-Franciscan officials and physicians explained to the governor how a $5 million expansion to the Cancer Center in the facility’s Center for Advanced Medicine and Surgery building is intended to meet a ballooning need.
The current patient load at the Cancer Center is 1,000 to 1,100 unique visits a year and capacity will be increased to accommodate 2,200 a year, said Dr. Paula Gill, a medical oncologist at Mayo-Franciscan who also specializes in hematology.
Part of the increase is resulting from the fact that people are living longer with cancer because of improving treatment, she said.
Walker noted that his mother, Pat, benefited from early diagnosis of breast cancer, with surgery that has left her cancer free after her most recent checkup.
When his mother-in-law received a grim diagnosis with a brain tumor, the family sought a second opinion and obtained treatment that has prolonged her life at least two years, Walker said.
“That may not seem like a lot, but it’s two years of seeing grandkids growing up,” he said.
After Walker mentioned the painful battle his wife’s brother had with bone marrow cancer 30 years ago, Gill said one of the first reactions cancer patients must overcome is fear because of horror stories from the past.
“It’s all different now,” she said, in a technology-driving field in which anti-nausea drugs help lessen the side effects of chemotherapy and treatments increasingly are able to be geared to individual patients.
Walker’s Health Care Stability Plan addresses three specific needs:
- Reining in skyrocketing premiums for people in the individual health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. Most people have coverage through plans at work, where premiums have been increasing around 5 percent, Walker said. But individuals, such as small business owners, their employees and self-employed businesses and farmers, are experiencing hikes of 35 percent and higher, he said.
“That’s just unacceptable,” he said, adding that his plan requests a State Innovation Waiver through a reinsurance program that could lower premiums for those in the individual marketplace.
The plan, which would help about 200,000 individuals, would cost $200 million, with the state paying for $50 million from savings from Medicaid and the rest coming from the federal government, unless the feds changed what the state is eligible to receive, he said.
- Making sure coverage for people with pre-existing conditions remains, “no matter what happens in Washington,” he said, apparently referring to some congressional proposals that would allow insurance companies to deny coverage.
- Trying to make SeniorCare permanent. Under present federal guidelines, the state must reapply every year for a waiver to offer SeniorCare, which provides prescription drug coverage for about 60,000 residents on Medicare who need additional financial assistance for prescriptions.
The state wants the federal law changed to make the SeniorCare waiver permanent.
Asked whether some of these protections might have been in effect already if he had accepted Medicare expansion, Walker rejected the suggestion, saying it would have been “horrible.”
Walker insisted that his alternate plan kept people from becoming dependent on government programs. Critics have countered that although it broadened BadgerCare for some, the plan kicked tens of thousands off insurance.
Asked about the debate over gun control and mental health care swirling around the massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school at the hands of a former student last week — especially in light of President Donald Trump’s major cuts in mental health funds — Walker noted that his Wisconsin budgets have included major increases for mental health care, especially grants in the state’s schools.
He also expressed confidence in the state’s gun laws, state and local safety plans for schools, and the ability of law enforcement in the Badger State to follow up on tips like those that raised red flags about the shooter in Florida.
He lamented the FBI’s acknowledgment that it had not followed protocol in checking into tips about the Florida shooter’s malevolent intent, saying, “That’s not acceptable.”