March 5, 2015

Lawmakers renew push for Wisconsin-based health exchange

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma)

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma)

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which argues those who purchase their health insurance through the federal exchanges should not qualify for subsidies that lower the cost of care. If the court sides with those arguments, supporters of Obamacare warn it could have a dramatic impact on millions of Americans who have purchased coverage through the federal exchange system.

Wisconsin is one of 34 states that opted to use the federal exchange. If the subsidies were to go away, Robert Kraig with Citizen Action of Wisconsin warns that 85 percent of the roughly 183,000 state residents would likely be unable to continue to afford their coverage. He said an adverse decision would mean “literally you would have people, women with breast cancer and men with heart conditions, every pre-existing condition imaginable, the most vulnerable people, suddenly stripped of their health insurance.”

Democratic lawmakers are proposing a bill that would create a Wisconsin-based exchange, which they argue is needed as a contingency plan. State Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) says a state-based exchange would make sure residents would have their subsidies protected. The Alma Democrat says that protection is needed to make sure health care costs don’t sky-rocket, which she believes would happen if the federal subsidies went away.

The proposal is unlikely to see much support from majority Republicans in the Legislature, who turned down federal funding to create a state-based exchange.

Wisconsin keeping Drug Takeback Program going

Drugs (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Drugs (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

A popular drug takeback program will continue operating in Wisconsin, even though the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has ended support for the effort.

Newly-elected Attorney General Brad Schimel says the highly successful program is too important to let die. “In Wisconsin, we collected over 34,000 pounds of unused prescriptions that could be recycled safely instead of ending up flushed down the toilet or in the garbage. Those end up in our water table, so this is a very important program, and it also takes these drugs out of circulation so they can’t be diverted.”

Schimel says local police, sheriff’s deputies, along with public health officials, solid waste operators, and wastewater treatment experts all urged him to find a way to save the program. “We’ve been working on this. Law enforcement has had my ear on this for months already. I’ve recognized this is a big deal. It’s just taken us a little time to get the logistics worked out. The Covanta incinerator has entered into an agreement with us. They’re going to destroy these for free, and the State Division of Criminal Investigation, which is a part of DOJ (Department of Justice), we will take the lead on making sure they get safely down there.”

Once the unwanted prescriptions are collected, Schimel says his agency will take care of transporting them to an incinerator in Indianapolis, Indiana. “We’re going to have to get these boxed up. They’re going to have to be put on pallets, shrink wrapped, those are all requirements for how we get them there, and we’ve got to get them there with a law enforcement escort. You would not want the contents of these trucks falling into the wrong hands.”
Moving a semi truck or two of pills is expensive, but Schimel says it’s worth the cost. “We just had to work out finding how we were going to take care of the cost, and we found a way to do it by just re-prioritizing some things.”

Many communities have anonymous drop boxes for unwanted prescriptions at police departments. Schimel is hoping more departments install those now that they know the program will continue and they have a proper place to send the drugs. “These med return units are kind of like an M1 Abrams tank version of a mailbox. They’re just very secure mailboxes. Things go in, and you have to have the key to get them out.”

Schimel says prescription pain killers left in homes are often how people get hooked on opiates, which can lead to heroin use when the pills run out. He says it’s important to get the unnecessary drugs out of homes in a safe manner.

The first collection day for the renewed Drug Take Back program will be in May.


Bill would require more frequent vision checks for older drivers

Image from video

Image from video

A state lawmaker plans to reintroduce legislation which would require more frequent vision testing for older drivers in Wisconsin. State Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) said he was in the process of having the bill drafted even before video of a 92 year-old driver striking nine cars in a supermarket parking lot in Mayville was widely seen.

“I think that as a person gets older, his or her eyes don’t function as well,” said Risser, who will be 88 in May and is the longest-serving state legislator in the nation.

Currently, Wisconsin drivers get their eyes tested when they renew their driver’s license every eight years. Risser said that most states require that more frequently for older drivers. “The definition of ‘age’ is somewhat different,” from state-to-state, Risser said, but his legislation would have the testing occur every four years for drivers age 70 and older.

Risser introduced the bill in the last legislative session, but it failed to advance.

Democrats propose modified Medicaid expansion

Rep. Daniel Riemer

Rep. Daniel Riemer

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is being asked to accept federal dollars for Medicaid expansion.

Two years after Walker and Republicans in the legislature changed the eligibility requirements for Wisconsin’s BadgerCare program – a change which resulted in the elimination of coverage for about 77,000 state residents – Representative Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) are proposing a plan which they hope will draw bipartisan support.

Their proposal stops short of full Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin. “Republican legislative leaders and the governor have made it clear that that traditional Medication expansion would not be considered, so this is an attempt to use a different, more bipartisan approach, with admittedly less savings,” said Riemer.

Riemer said the state could accept some federal money to expand BadgerCare, guaranteeing health coverage to more than 80,000 uninsured while providing the state with some $240 million dollars that could be used to offset budget cuts.

“When the Joint Finance Committee is looking at this budget and thinking about how many unpopular, damaging choices and disinvestments they’re making, they’re going to say ‘my goodness, we can cover more people for less money, we can prevent cuts,’” said Robert Kraig with Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin has found a good middle ground,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. “The federal government takes care of individuals not in poverty; Wisconsin takes care of people who are.”

Possible measles cases in Portage County

A child with a measles rash (Photo: CDC)

A child with a measles rash (Photo: CDC)

Health officials in central Wisconsin are monitoring two patients for signs of measles.

Portage County Health Officer Gary Garske says two people are in isolation, awaiting test results. Garske cannot disclose if the suspected cases are adults or children, male or female, or where in Portage County they live, but he did say there is no known association between the two patients.

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. It spreads through the air through coughing and sneezing. About three out of 10 people who get measles will develop one or more complications including pneumonia, ear infections, or diarrhea. The disease can be prevented with the help of a vaccine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), measles is a viral disease. Cases of start with a fever, cough, runny nose, or conjunctivitis. A characteristic rash usually appears about 7-21 days after a person is exposed. The rash spreads from the head to the trunk to the lower extremities. People are considered to be contagious from four days before to four days after the rash appears.

Public health officials request that individuals who have symptoms stay home and contact their medical provider by telephone for instructions before traveling anywhere, including medical facilities. He says clinics and hospitals may need to isolate the patient immediately, and not expose other people.

Garske says he is not aware of any confirmed cases of measles this year anywhere in Wisconsin, although a national outbreak has seen 121 cases reported in just the first few weeks of the year so far.