Push to privatize care for frail elderly and disabled slowed

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

The Legislature’s budget committee, controlled by Republicans, has slowed down the Walker administration’s proposals to change the way Wisconsin deals with its frail elderly and disabled citizens.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would have moved to contractout management to a for-profit corporation, not necessarily from Wisconsin.

Family Care services are now provided on an eight-region basis through a variety of providers. It was introduced by Gov. Tommy Thompson in his 1998 State of the State Speech, endorsed by the Legislature and embraced by Thompson’s Democrat successor, Gov. Jim Doyle.

Much of the services are fashioned to meet the needs of the individual person. Some 41,000 persons are getting the help aimed at allowing them to avoid going to nursing homes.

The program, run under the purview of the state Department of Health and Family Services, has proved popular and effective.

The Joint Finance Committee directed that a detailed study be conducted and that the people getting the assistance have an input into the issue of how best to provide the services. The move didn’t get much attention in the media, perhaps because these citizens are not high-profile groups in the eyes of average citizens.

Walker’s proposal had triggered layoff notices for many of the people who actually provide the services. Those who watch state government are used to Walker getting his way on issues. The employers of the care-givers were preparing for change.

Advocates for the frail elderly and the disabled have lobbied hard to slow down the Walker proposal, but they are not the type of groups that provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash to politicians.

These groups hailed the committee’s move, especially the provisions to include them in a review of how the program already is working. The changes also impact county governments which play major roles in the delivery of social services.

But the advocates stopped short of declaring a policy victory. There was concern about the study requirements spelled out by the Finance Committee members.

“We just have to be cautious that the wide range of special requirements (in the study) could actually be limiting and detrimental to keeping the program operational as successfully and cost efficient as it is now,” said Helen Marks Dicks, advocacy director for the AARP in Wisconsin.

State Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, said if streamlining the program was the goal of government, the best people to provide input are those who are being served.

The number of people being served may not explain its importance. Each of them has family members who prefer independent living to nursing home arrangements. Living at home, with taxpayer-financed help, is far less expensive than institutionalized care.

Action by the committee co-chairs got lost in other government and political news in Wisconsin. Gov. Walker campaigned in other states and traveled abroad to beef up his resume as he seeks to be the next president of the United States.

It came in a week in which Walker also stunned the media directing that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation get out of providing loans to corporations. The creation of WHEDA was one of Walker’s signature efforts to expand jobs in Wisconsin. But two reports by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau have blistered the corporation’s loan efforts.

It got worse for Walker when the Wisconsin State Journal detailed how top aides to the governor had lobbied for a big loan to a major contributor to Walker’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

This sort of thing may be normal in other states, but it is not in the Wisconsin government tradition. What is more in the Wisconsin tradition is the sort of Family Care study ordered by the Joint Finance Committee.

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