Gov. Scott Walker is accepting a $37.7 million federal grant to help create an information technology network for a system of health exchanges required under national health care reform.
Walker is accepting the award even though he opposes national health care reform and is joining a multi-state lawsuit to have it declared unconstitutional. He has also replaced the previous administration’s Office of Health Care Reform with what he calls an Office of Free Market Health Care, which a news release said “would explore all opportunities and alternative approaches that would free Wisconsin from establishing a health benefit exchange, including federal waivers.”
While that might appear to be a contradiction to some of his critics, Walker has said in the past that he supports having an online marketplace or exchange where citizens can get information on and purchase health insurance.
Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, which awarded the “early innovator grants” to Wisconsin and six other states Wednesday, said during a telephone press conference today that the funds could be applied toward this sort of online consumer marketplace as long as consumer protections and safeguards are in place and the various insurance options being offered meet certain standards.
"The delivery of affordable, quality healthcare is a high priority," Andrew Hitt, deputy legal counsel for Walker, wrote in a letter accepting the grant.
Under the health reform law passed last year, Wisconsin must set up the exchanges by 2014 or the federal government will do it for us.
Wisconsin has been selected along with Kansas, Oklahoma, Maryland, New York and a team of New England states to spend a total $241 million to pioneer various aspects of health insurance exchanges, a key component of the national health care law passed a year ago. The Doyle administration had submitted a lengthy and time-consuming application for the grant.
But the grant may now be used to establish a much different sort of health exchange than the Doyle administration had envisionned, given Walker's recent actions and statements.
On his first day in office, he authorized attorney general J.B. Van Hollen to join a multi-state lawsuit to strike down the new federal law, which Van Hollen recently declared was "dead" in the wake of a Florida court ruling.
Just last week, Walker's new insurance commissioner terminated a $637,114 grant issued through the federal health reform law that would have helped consumers navigate the new health exchanges. Nearly 1 million residents are expected to purchase insurance through the online exchange, which will serve people shopping for both public insurance programs like Medicaid and private plans.
Insurance Commissioner Ted Nickel said in a statement that the program was "largely duplicative and unnecessary" and that "saving taxpayers, whether they are federal or state taxpayers, from unnecessary spending is in everyone's best interest."
Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, was one of those stunned by the decision to return the aid, which would have given his advocacy group $238,000 to help consumers navigate the new system. "They're trying to drive a stake through the heart of health care reform," he says.
Yet they can not do that completely unless the health reform law is struck down, since under the law Wisconsin must set up the exchanges by 2014 or the federal government will do it for us.
So it will be interesting to see how Walker uses this new pot of money to satisfy both that federal mandate and his own goals.