By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
No one is more opposed to the Affordable Care Act — a.k.a. Obamacare — than the Republican members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.
The state’s five GOP reps — Paul Ryan, James Sensenbrenner, Tom Petri, Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble — have repeatedly voted to repeal the landmark bill. All joined the House majority in opposition that led to a partial shutdown of the federal government. Sensenbrenner, for one, has called the law “abominable.”
So what does Sensenbrenner’s office do when constituents seek its assistance getting in on this abomination? Why, assist them, of course.
“Part of our job is to help our constituents with government programs,” says Ben Miller, a spokesman for Sensenbrenner. “So if Obamacare is the law of the land, then our office will help folks if we can.”
Similar sentiments issue from the offices of the state’s other GOP House members and that of Sen. Ron Johnson, who has called Obamacare “the greatest single assault on our freedom in our lifetime.”
“There’s no reason to be uncooperative,” says an aide to Johnson. In most cases, this means making referrals to healthcare.gov, the federal government’s online portal for program information and enrollment, which began Oct. 1 for coverage next year. “We’ll direct people right to the source.”
A spokeswoman for Duffy says that while his office tries to help constituents answer questions about enrollment, these answers are sometimes “hard to come by” due to unresolved issues with the law.
Ryan’s office says most of the constituents he’s heard from about Obamacare have expressed opposition. A spokesman for Petri says nearly 75 percent of the calls, email and letters to that office are from opponents. Johnson’s aide put the ratio at roughly 10 to one.
On the other side of the political aisle, Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan, Gwen Moore and Ron Kind and Sen. Tammy Baldwin are also helping constituents find their way to Obamacare, with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm.
Moore has created a page on her website to help people understand the law and is hosting two health-care forums in October. “We are hearing from a lot of people,” says her spokeswoman, Staci Cox. Baldwin also has a webpage on the topic and has pressed state officials to help state residents find coverage.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker is shifting 92,000 people from the state’s BadgerCare health insurance program to the new federal exchanges, and letting about 82,000 poverty-level childless adults sign up for BadgerCare. Much of the work to make new eligibility determinations and facilitate enrollments will be done at the county level.
Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, only one — Barron — has refused to accept federal and state funds to hire new people for this purpose. There, Wisconsin Public Radio reported, health department staff are now racking up overtime to meet the demand. In Brown County, a supervisor proposed barring county agencies and staff from helping implement Obamacare, but this was rejected.
Walker’s Office of the Commissioner of Insurance has been accused of trying to stir up opposition to Obamacare by predicting substantial new rate increases, using partial information that did not factor in available subsidies. OCI is also imposing fees and other hurdles on “navigators” — persons trained to help consumers use the new exchanges.
These include a requirement that Wisconsin navigators undergo a background check and be fingerprinted. OCI spokesman J.P. Wieske told the Associated Press this was necessary to prevent fraud related to their access to sensitive personal information.
Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, sees these as deliberate attempts to “sabotage” the Affordable Care Act. “We do have a concern that there are going to be officials who will try to undermine the act and its implementation.”
But others will be doing what they can to help people enroll — whether they like it or not.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.