Democratic candidates for governor vowed to take federal Medicaid expansion money and broaden the state health care program for the needy if elected, and some shared personal health care stories, at a panel discussion in Madison Thursday.

The candidates, appearing at a conference of health care advocates, unanimously supported federal Medicaid expansion, which Gov. Scott Walker turned down, and BadgerCare for All, which would let people who don’t qualify for the state’s main Medicaid coverage to buy it.

The gubernatorial hopefuls also addressed black infant mortality, the cost of medical care, mental health and the opioid abuse epidemic.

Drug companies lied to the public by saying opioids aren’t addictive, said Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, who noted that Wisconsin recently had the highest increase in emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses.

“We will go after those drug companies,” he said.

Gronik, who has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, said he and his family get insurance through the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“I’m one of the people who’s at risk of losing my health care,” he said.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, was a key supporter of an unsuccessful universal coverage bill a decade ago. She highlighted her background as a nurse’s aide, health administration professor and dairy farmer.

While farming, she was uninsured for nearly two years. Her son had a $15,000 medical bill, forcing her to take out a second mortgage on her home, she said.

“I feel like I’ve seen every side of (health care),” Vinehout said.

She called for a Wisconsin-based health insurance exchange and the creation of regional resource centers to help families and children get mental health services. She supports Walker’s reinsurance plan to curb Obamacare premiums in Wisconsin.

Mike McCabe, former executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he was uninsured while growing up on a dairy farm.

Wisconsin should treat people with behavioral health issues, instead of putting them in prison, McCabe said. He suggested his political watchdog background would help free the governor’s office from monetary influences.

“We are not going to get good health care reform from a sick political system,” he said.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin touted a dramatic reduction in the black infant mortality rate in Dane County more than a decade ago, though he didn't note that the rate increased again in recent years. Hospitals around the state need to set up programs to draw minorities and help improve their health status, he said.

"Opening your doors and saying, 'We are here to serve you,' is not sufficient," he said. "Access is based on trust."

Soglin said "we are going to have to talk tough" with hospitals to lower their costs for care.

Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, of Madison, who previously was executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, said she worked on access to birth control, protecting abortion rights and racial disparities in infant mortality.

The state needs to help pay for education for mental health providers, to ease a shortage, Roys said.

Now a small business owner, Roys said she can relate to a problem many entrepreneurs face. "One of my biggest challenges ... is getting great health coverage," she said.

State Superintendent Tony Evers didn't attend the HealthWatch Wisconsin conference but appeared by video. He called for more transparency in health care, incentives for providers to work in rural areas, protecting water quality and addressing the opioid abuse epidemic. 

As a survivor of esophageal cancer, Evers said he is concerned about coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

"We have to make sure that pre-existing conditions do not interfere with people getting health care and health insurance," he said.

Former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Matt Flynn, who also appeared by video, said uncompensated care — charity care and unpaid bills — is going up after falling in recent years because Republicans are attacking the Affordable Care Act.

BadgerCare for All and the federal Medicaid expansion could help turn the trend around in Wisconsin, he said.  

Two other top Democrats running for governor — state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, and Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell — didn't attend the conference or appear by video.