Just in time for the holidays, Governor Scott Walker announced he will extend health-care coverage for low-income Wisconsinites for another three months.
Because of glitches in the Affordable Care Act, Walker said, he will give people a little more time before they lose state health insurance and have to buy insurance on the new federal exchange.
This reprieve would seem generous, except that Walker still intends to purge 72,000 low-income citizens from the state's Badgercare health insurance program by March 31. In the meantime, he plans to leave another 80,000 even poorer citizens uninsured.
Wisconsin is one of 24 states that refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage -- a decision that cost the state millions and left tens of thousands of working poor people out in the cold.
On top of that, Walker decided to shrink the state's existing Badgercare/Medicaid program to only cover the very poorest citizens.
Former Badgercare recipients making between 100 percent and 200 percent of poverty will have to buy policies on the exchange come March.
But here's the really messy part: in order to pay for the three-month extension on Badgercare for those people, the governor plans to delay covering the very poorest citizens.
Next week the Wisconsin legislature will meet in a special session to talk about the Badgercare/Medicaid mess.
As state senator Tim Cullen, Democrat of Janesville, wrote in a letter to his colleagues: "Put simply, the [governor's] proposal would pay to cover the second-lowest income group by delaying coverage to the very poorest Wisconsin citizens who have no coverage today."
That's both cruel and unnecessary, he pointed out.
"The legislature's approach need not follow the 'Sophie's Choice' mentality offered by the governor," Cullen wrote.
Instead, he offered two possible alternatives.
One option is for the state to accept -- for just three months -- the federal Medicaid money the Wisconsin turned down when the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
"The governor has said he opposes taking federal Medicaid dollars because he fears the federal government over time will not keep its commitment." Cullen wrote. "The governor knows, however, that the federal government will keep its commitment for three months!"
Another option, he suggested, is for the state to pay to cover both groups for the three months until March 31, at a cost of $21.5 million.
That's less than one half of 1 percent of the state's $4.8 billion biennial Medicaid budget, Cullen added.
During the last heated debate about changes in Badgercare/Medicaid, Rep. Cory Mason, Democrat of Racine, called the governor's approach "the worst piece of public policy I've seen in this budget -- and there have been some dingers."
"Republicans are willing to spend $119 million to deny 85,000 people their health care," Mason said. "That's pretty extreme. That's not the Wisconsin I know."
For 80,000 mostly single, childless adults, many of whom have never had health insurance, the three month delay "will be extremely damaging and even life-threatening," Cullen wrote.
"I would find a decision to reject federal dollars for only three months outrageous," Cullen added. "However, even if the state decides not to accept federal dollars, we can still afford to cover both groups with sate funds."
In other states that have not waged a politicized fight against the Affordable Care Act -- notably Washington, Connecticut, and Kentucky -- thousands of low-income residents are getting health coverage for the first time, and the states are saving money.
As the governors of those states wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post:
"The Affordable Care Act has been successful in our states because our political and community leaders grasped the importance of expanding health-care coverage and have avoided the temptation to use health-care reform as a political football."
The governors wrote that expanding Medicaid created tens of thousands of new jobs in those states, saved hundreds of thousands of health-care dollars, and most importantly, provided health insurance to hundreds of thousands of people who didn't have it before.
Wisconsin's health care mess, and the special session to discuss it starting next week, shows that citizens are the real losers in states where political leaders decided to play politics with health care instead of expanding access.