MADISON, Wisconsin — Taking federal money to pay for expanding Medicaid coverage in Wisconsin isn't dead yet, even though Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature have repeatedly refused to accept the funding, health care leaders in the state said Tuesday.
Walker has touted his decision to reject the money while he runs for president, and Republican legislators have repeatedly voted down Democratic attempts to accept the money. The funding would make more people eligible for Medicaid and free up state money to pay for other priorities.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are still talking about accepting the federal money, which can be taken at any time, said Eric Borgerding, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Hospital Association.
"It's way out there on the fringe of the realm," Borgerding said at a forum organized by Wisconsin Health News. "This remains a very hot political issue. But I think what's keeping it on the radar screen more than anything is the dollars."
Wisconsin has already turned down $560 million from the federal government to pay for Medicaid under President Barack Obama's health care law, which Walker has steadfastly opposed and wants to repeal. That's enough money, Democrats and supporters of the law point out, to undo a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin approved in the recently passed budget and increase funding for K-12 public schools.
Walker took the unique approach of expanding Medicaid coverage and lowering income eligibility levels, while rejecting the federal money to pay for it. Walker argued, in rejecting the money, that the federal government can't be trusted to keep up its funding commitment to the states.
"We would hope, from the Medical Society standpoint, that Medicaid expansion remains on the table," said Rick Abrams, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Medical Society.
While some lawmakers have expressed interest in the idea, "it's not on their radar right now," said Stephanie Harrison, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association.
Harrison and others speaking at the forum also said they expect the rhetoric over the federal health care law to continue, but the substantive debate will be over making changes to improve the law rather than scrap it. The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld a key component of the law as constitutional, a ruling backers said ended the fight over its future.
"The next place we're going to be looking is how to make health care more affordable," said Nancy Wenzel, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans.
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP