New law gets Wisconsin close to health care for all
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s attempt to join other Republican attorneys general in suing the federal government over the new health reform law signed by President Obama last week was an interesting story on many levels.
Wisconsin’s participation in the litigation was unlikely since Republican Van Hollen needed approval from Democrat Governor Jim Doyle or the Democrat-controlled state Legislature to join the politically motivated case, which questions the constitutionality of requiring all U.S. citizens to have health insurance. To the surprise of no one, Wisconsin Democrats declined to give Van Hollen the green light.
The case may raise a legitimate constitutional question, but what’s particularly disingenuous about the “you-can’t-make-us-buy-insurance” mentality in Wisconsin is the fact that most people here already have health insurance.
About 89 percent of state residents had health coverage for all of 2008, the latest information available from the state Department of Health Services, which surveys health insurance trends among Wisconsin households. That percentage likely will fall when the department’s “Family Health Survey” results come out for 2009, reflecting recession-related job losses. But Wisconsin still will rank near the top of states with the most insured people.
The 2008 survey found that about 74 percent of Wisconsin residents got their health insurance through their employers; about 11 percent were covered through BadgerCare and other forms of Medicaid and the rest were covered by Medicare, the federal health plan for people age 65 and older. That left 595,000, or 11 percent of state residents, without health insurance for all or part of 2008.
So who are the uninsured? The survey found those “more likely to be without insurance” for an entire year were young adults (18 to 44 years old), Hispanics, the poor or near poor and the self-employed. About 8 percent of uninsured residents worked full time for an employer, 19 percent were self-employed full time and another 13 percent worked part time.
Without question, the uninsured are the biggest beneficiaries of health care reform. Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Karen Timberlake estimates the new federal law will help about 200,000 Wisconsin uninsured residents get access to coverage.
But it’s not just the uninsured who will gain from the new law, which will be phased in over the next four years. Although most Wisconsinites have coverage through their jobs, most also are just a layoff away from losing that health insurance. Currently, people who lose their jobs have a tough time finding new insurance if they have preexisting medical conditions. The new law stops insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting medical conditions and bans companies from canceling policies of people who get sick. In addition, insurance companies will no longer be able to put annual or lifetime limits on how much medical care patients can receive.
The new health law isn’t perfect and won’t please everyone. It will take a few years to work out all the snags. But it is an important and historic step toward doing what every other western industrialized nation has done, which is to establish health care as a right for all citizens.