As Others See It

Senior clout obvious as GOP rebuffs Walker’s drug plan
Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Assembly have rejected Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to force some elderly out of the popular SeniorCare prescription drug assistance plan.

It’s not the first time GOP legislators have rebuffed Walker’s proposals for SeniorCare at budget time. Assembly leaders suggested there may be some cost increases to help ease the red ink lurking in state budgeting. But no one will be forced into other drug programs, according to the GOP legislative leaders.

The action came even before the Joint Finance Committee began taking formal votes on the biennial state budget. It’s a testament to the political power of the elderly. Senior citizens tend to be conservative and they vote in higher percentages than other age groups.

The quick reaction is politically relevant because of the focus in U.S. Congress on health issues. The controversy over Obamacare is just part of what is unfolding in Washington.

The Wisconsin announcement came the same week that the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate were passing a nonbinding Republican budget. But the federal “budget” is different than the ones that are passed by the Wisconsin Legislature.

In Wisconsin, both policies and appropriation levels are in the same bill. In Washington, the appropriation bills are keys because they determine how federal money will actually be used.

Consider the non-binding Republican budget measures in Washington. The GOP budget would cut an estimated $1 trillion in spending over 10 years from programs like Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. Medicaid – the health-care program for the poor – would have a large impact state by state.

Each state apparently would get set amounts from the federal government and the 50 governors and the 50 Legislatures would determine how the money would be spent. The details are sketchy and would need to be determined in appropriation legislation.

The term “poor people” covers a broad spectrum. The public help provided for the disabled and the very elderly is not because they refuse to work; many times they have outlived both their financial resources and their spouses.

The Republican budgets approved in Washington also call for converting Medicare into a program under which seniors would get a voucher to select their own health insurance programs. Medicare is a popular program, and the voucher idea has not had traction previously when decision time approached.

President George W. Bush floated the voucher idea more than a decade ago, but neither the public nor the Congress were interested. Wisconsin’s own U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan has championed the idea in recent years, but he did not promote it when he was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012. Earlier, Ryan had sought to sell the idea, saying that it would come into play only for those who turned 65 in a decade.

National polls have shown broad support for the current Medicare system among all citizens – Democrats, Republicans and independents. Support has ranged as high as 68 percent in some of the polling.

The Republican legislative reaction to Gov. Walker’s ideas about SeniorCare shows that elected officials aren’t ready to cut back popular programs, especially when the over-65 population is involved. It is one thing to denounce government deficits and spending, but it’s another to cut back on a popular program.

Another example surfaced in Washington recently when Congress backed away from sharp reductions to physicians providing Medicare coverage. However, the legislation did move toward financial rewards for providers who achieved success in health outcomes for their patients. Those higher reimbursements were estimated to cost $143 million over 10 years.

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