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Budget repair bill has implications for BadgerCare

March 1, 2011 | 0 comments

The impact of Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill on collective bargaining rights for unionized workers has drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators to Madison over the last week, galvanizing teachers and other state workers and making the city the focus of national (and even international) attention. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people marched peacefully around the state capital on Saturday (Feb. 19.)

What’s less known about the budget repair bill, says Kara Slaughter, Wisconsin Farmers Union legislative director, is that the bill – intended to correct a shortfall in the current year’s budget – would lay the groundwork for sweeping changes to BadgerCare. That’s the state program that allows working families, including many farmers and rural residents, access to basic health-care services.

Based on her reading of the legislation, says Slaughter, more than 62,000 working Wisconsinites would lose their health insurance. The bill as a whole has been held up because Democrat members of the Wisconsin senate left the state and prevented that body from having enough members to debate and vote on it.

The BadgerCare program is run in collaboration with the federal government and there are certain rules that govern the program and who can be eligible for it. The budget repair bill seeks a waiver from the federal government to remove people from the medical assistance program who have incomes between 133 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

"The policy changes surrounding BadgerCare are very important to family farmers," Slaughter said. At the recent Wisconsin Farmers Union annual convention Feb. 5 in Madison, delegates elevated concerns about BadgerCare to a "special order of business" signifying that it was a top priority issue for the group, she told

"We certainly anticipated that in the biennial budget process we might see some cuts to this program, but we didn’t anticipate that the budget repair bill would seek to make sweeping changes like those that are included in this bill," she added.

The budget repair bill, which has been debated so much over its collective bargaining changes, lays the groundwork for changes in eligibility for BadgerCare. Slaughter said the bill itself doesn’t take anyone off the program, but paves the way for the state to remove people by changing eligibility criteria. "Farmers are going to fall in a segment of society that generates income but not nearly enough to buy private insurance," she said. For many farmers, it isn’t even a question of being able to afford insurance.

"For many it’s because they have pre-existing conditions," she added, "but they are not infrequently barred from insurance coverage because they are farmers and the insurance companies won’t take them no matter how much money they paid because their work is considered too risky.

"BadgerCare is a really important option," she added. As self-employed business owners, farmers do not have access to employer-provided health care options that other workers have and for many, especially those hit with lower farm income in recent years, that public insurance option is very important, she says.

Slaughter is also concerned that the budget repair bill would give the Secretary of the Department of Health Services emergency rulemaking authority to circumvent existing state laws on BadgerCare. "No showing of an emergency would actually be necessary," she said. "Emergencies that are provided for in state government are supposed to be rare and for limited duration."

The provision in this bill, she said, will allow an unelected state official the power to go around state laws to decide who is covered by a program that is very important to rural residents. "They may decide that while physical therapy or prescription medicines were covered before, they are no longer covered and that could be done by edict," she said.

The only check on it would be a passive review by the Joint Finance committee, whose Republican co-chairs would decide if it came up for review by their panel. "This is a tremendous delegation of power to an unelected official," says Slaughter.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau concluded that these changes would do nothing to address the deficit in the current biennial budget, Slaughter said. "The law would, however, dramatically limit the ability of citizens to have a voice in the future of BadgerCare – both in the current budget discussion and for years to come," she noted.

Slaughter said that affordable health insurance can be the make-or-break factor for farm families, who face a roller coaster of economic uncertainty. "When natural disasters strike or the farm economy plummets, as it did with the dairy industry in 2009, farmers need to know that they can provide basic medical care for themselves and their children," she said.

One farmer who knows what it’s like to endure that economic roller coaster in the dairy economy is Pat Skogen, who said the very small milk checks she and her husband were getting in 2009 led them to allow their private insurance to lapse. As a retired special education teacher, she was paying $1,280 per month for herself, her husband and their two teenagers, up until July 2009, when the milk price plummeted and property taxes were due.

"This wasn’t the Cadillac plan that so many have talked about here this week," she said from a telephone in Madison. "This was a basic HMO plan. But it was good insurance and we were grateful to have it." But then the burden of paying for it was just too much.

When they went without health insurance, Skogen said her family felt like they were walking on eggshells, trying not to go to the doctor or get injured. The Sauk County dairy farmer said her county Extension agent apparently got so many inquiries from struggling farm families like theirs that BadgerCare was recommended, along with food stamps.

"We applied for BadgerCare and were accepted. My philosophy was that all those 27 years I was a teacher I paid my taxes so that others could be helped and now we needed help," she told

Her husband, a master concrete finisher, had for years longed to run his own farm. That was a dream they realized in 2001 when they started building their herd near Loganville. Five years into their farming experience they became certified organic dairy producers, but that didn’t provide the economic assurances they had hoped it would. Sometimes their milk price is quite high and at other times they are paid the price of conventionally produced milk, while still incurring the cost of organic production, she said. "It makes it impossible to budget."

As people who worked at other jobs and paid taxes for decades, Skogen says she’s upset that changes to BadgerCare may make them ineligible. She says she and her husband would likely not have any insurance at all right now if it weren’t for the program.

As part of BadgerCare now, they are required to report their income every three months and their eligibility is determined every six months, based on that information. When their income is higher, they pay a premium for the insurance. "But it’s way less than the $1,280 a month we were paying," she added. "I was on my knees thanking God that we had it."

The milk check, she said, has been barely making the payments on their 100-acre farm, which they manage through intensive grazing. They have gotten by, she said, by not spending a lot on machinery and keeping costs down. They haven’t been able to feed grain to their herd for some time now since grain prices skyrocketed, Skogen added.

She has taken regular work as a substitute teacher and felt it was important to share her support for fellow teachers in Madison this week.

"My husband always wanted to farm," she says. "I realized my dream of becoming a teacher I told him he deserved to have his dream."

What she doesn’t like to hear anymore is that farmers need to tighten their belts. "We’ve been doing that for the last two or three years," she added.

Wisconsin State Farmer.Wisconsin State Farmer.



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