Scott Walker could be on the verge of giving Infowars some great conspiracy theory fodder. A move by Wisconsin’s Group Insurance Board to substantially increase how much state employees pay for their health insurance is drawing unqualified and sharp opposition from labor leaders but could once have drawn criticism from Sarah Palin, as well. That’s because the proposal includes “consultations about end-of-life care, which some called ‘death panels,’” as the Wisconsin State Journal put it.
Death panels?! In the great Badger State? Putting Badger Staters to death? How could this be? One may have asked, as some on the right did during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. But here we are, with the Wisconsin state government overseeing what’s set to be the controversy-free implementation of new policies designed to save the state money through its employees’ end-of-life decisions.
Quick background: The Wisconsin state government is having some tough fiscal times, and Walker’s budget proposal suggested substantial cuts in a number of areas, including to the University of Wisconsin system and to K-12 education. The governor’s budget proposal also called for savings of $81 million on the state employees’ group health insurance program. (Remember that in 2011 the governor oversaw the passage of Act 10, which virtually ended collective bargaining for most of the state’s public sector unions.) But the budget wasn’t too specific about how to save that $81 million. Instead, Walker’s proposal directed the state’s Group Insurance Board to work with Atlanta-based Segal Consulting to figure it out.
Sticking it to the employees
The most buzzed-about change, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, will require public sector employees to pay twice as much out of pocket for their health care than they do now. These changes are projected to save the state $85 million over the next two years (Wisconsin passes budgets biennially), and most of the savings “will come from increasing out-of-pocket limits and introducing deductibles for the vast majority of state workers who don’t have them,” according to the paper. Individual employees will have new $250 deductibles, and family deductibles will be $500.
The Group Insurance Board voted for the changes on May 19, and unless the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee moves to require legislative approval for the changes, they will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, according to Mark Lamkins, communications director for the state’s Department of Employee Trust Funds. The board that approved the changes has 11 members, some of whom are Walker appointees. The majority of the Walker appointees on the board voted in favor.
And the change has labor leaders irate.
“What the group insurance board did today is unconscionable,” said Wisconsin AFSCME executive Marty Beil, according to THOnline. “I’d also call it evil that they’re treating state employees at that level. It’s incredible.”
But Walker’s critics on the left aren’t just going after him for increasing public sector employees’ expenditures for their health care. They’ve also targeted him for a tiny provision the board approved that seeks to save a bit of money through end-of-life care. The memo laying out the cost-cutting health-care proposaldoesn’t detail how these changes would work, and the State Journal reported that “[e]nd-of-life care consultations, also called advanced care planning or palliative care, would save $292,500.” That’s hardly a hefty sum. Lamkins said the changes would involve “keeping people out of institutions near the end of life, giving them more opportunities to manage their care-treatment plan.”
He added that the change is designed “to ensure that members facing serious illness and survival of less than six months are informed of care options and are able to make treatment decisions based on their individual values and goals of care.”
Reached for comment, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, pointed out that the phrase “death panels” is nowhere to be found in any of the health care change proposals. But that hasn’t defused liberal ire about the panel’s move.
That’s because Walker has been one of the most outspoken conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act.
“When Sarah Palin was trying to derail Obamacare over ‘death panels,’ Scott Walker didn’t say a word defending the need for people to have end-of-life counseling and instead on his first day as governor wasted taxpayer dollars suing the federal government over Obamacare,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. “But wrapped in a scheme that would make cash-strapped middle-class workers in Wisconsin pay even more for health care, Team Walker quietly slides this into the mix. The inclusion of the palliative counseling is critical, but Scott Walker would have saved families a lot of grief if he would have stood up to the Tea Party in 2010 instead of this backdoor deal now.”
Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, voiced support for Walker’s so-called death panels but said he was frustrated the governor didn’t do more to defend the Affordable Care Act.
“The right, using Sarah Palin, shamelessly tried to call simple voluntary end-of-life consultation a ‘death panel’ early in the debate over Obamacare,” he said. “There’s obviously a great irony that the Walker administration would now come forward with an end-of-life consultation provision. I still have to say that it’s good policy, most likely, it’s just incredible hypocrisy for them to come out with that after Walker has been one of the most disingenuous critics of the ACA.”
It’s doubtful, of course, that any of this will be a problem for Walker’s 2016 ambitions. Nobody ever did poorly with Iowa Republican caucus-goers because critics on the left were too noisy. But the debate highlights one of the tricky aspects of running for president as a governor: that the tiniest provisions in uncontroversial policies can easily become flashpoints for controversy.