MADISON, Wisconsin — As those in Wisconsin working to get people enrolled for health insurance through the federal online marketplace reported progress in recent days, the state Assembly passed a bill Wednesday that would give those losing their Medicaid coverage three more months to sign up for private plans.
Assembly Republicans said Wednesday that the Obama administration's health care failures forced them to take quick action on a bill that Gov. Scott Walker proposed and called the Legislature into special session to quickly pass this month.
The bill would delay for three months removing an estimated 72,000 people above the poverty level from the state's BadgerCare Plus Medicaid program. But to pay for the extension, 83,000 childless adults below poverty won't get Medicaid until April.
Democrats objected strongly to that part of the proposal.
"This is shameful!" shouted Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca, of Kenosha. He and other Democrats want to take federal money for three months to cover the childless adults who expected to start receiving BadgerCare Plus coverage in January.
Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, said the plan "pits the poorest against those who are less poor."
"There's no need to make this false choice," he said.
Assembly Democrats said Republicans were breaking their promise to those 83,000 who'll have to wait to be covered.
"I don't believe it's a broken promise by us, it's a broken promise by the federal government," said Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee, prior to the start of debate.
Republicans said the delays were needed because of ongoing problems with the federally run online marketplace, saying those losing Medicaid coverage needed more time to sign up through the website. The website has been beset with problems since its launch in October, but the Obama administration said this week many of those issues have been corrected.
"We wish we wouldn't be in this position," Nygren said. "We're living in the world that was created by the federal government."
The Assembly voted 64-32 to pass the bill, with all Republicans and five Democrats in support. The measure now goes to the Senate, which is scheduled to take it up Dec. 19. It must pass there in the same form as the Assembly version, and be signed by Walker, before taking effect.
Those working to sign people up for coverage on the exchange in Wisconsin have reported that the website is running more smoothly in the past couple weeks and there has also been an uptick in interest among consumers.
Navigators with Partners for Community Development in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, started to notice an improvement in the federal website last week, said the group's executive director Lucio Fuentez.
"It still takes time because some of the people have a lot of questions," Fuentez said Monday. "However, it's certainly working a lot better. The navigators are able to get people through."
As of mid-November, only 877 people in Wisconsin had purchased coverage through the exchange.
Walker declined to have the state run the exchange and also rejected federal money to expand Medicaid. Instead, Walker and the Legislature lowered Medicaid eligibility for parents and caretaker relatives from 200 percent to 100 percent of poverty. They also expanded Medicaid coverage to childless adults who are below the poverty level.
Under that approach, everyone below the federal poverty level is eligible for Medicaid. But those above the line, who previously may have been eligible for Medicaid, instead must purchase insurance through the federal online exchange.
The federal poverty level is $11,490 for an individual, $15,510 for a couple and $23,550 for a family of four.
Wisconsin's high-risk insurance pool also is slated to disappear at the beginning of the year, leaving about 20,000 more people without coverage. The bill would allow those people to retain their coverage through April, too.
Walker is also asking the Obama administration to allow Wisconsin to join Florida, Ohio, and Texas in a pilot program in which consumers go to insurers to buy health insurance plans available on the exchange.
Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner Ted Nickel sent a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Health Services asking to join the program. Nickel also voiced support for an earlier Walker request that consumers be allowed to use federal subsidies to purchase any health plan offered in the state, not just those sold on the exchange.
A spokeswoman for DHS did not immediately return a message seeking comment.