Barack Obama's re-election poses a political conundrum that (Wisconsin) Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers have eight days to solve: how to handle the president's signature health care law.
The victory for the president and the return of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate means Obamacare will remain the law of the country, forcing the Republican governor and his top aides on health care and insurance to meet hastily Wednesday to start working out their response.
Walker decided late last year to stop planning to implement the health care law in the state, preferring instead to hold out for an Obama defeat and a repeal of the law.
Now the state is scrambling to decide by a Nov. 16 federal deadline whether Wisconsin wants to take charge of a virtual marketplace, or exchange, required by the law to allow consumers and small businesses to purchase health coverage. In just over a week, the state will have to say whether it can get that exchange running by January 2014 or will leave that task to the federal government.
In Milwaukee Wednesday at an event focused on veterans, Walker said the state still had enough time to decide among three options: accept a federally run exchange; set up a statewide exchange; or a partnership combining the two.
"They (the federal government) won't review that until as late as January," Walker said of the proposal. "Even after notifying them, we have until next fall to make modifications as we see fit."
So far Republicans, who regained control of the state Legislature Tuesday, have argued that officials should hold up Obamacare, not help to make it a reality. But critics such as Bobby Peterson, head of the Madison nonprofit ABC for Health, say the state is squandering an opportunity to adapt its exchange to the needs of Wisconsin residents and businesses -- a task at which Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration had taken a leading national role.
"If they (have to) put something in, it'll be rushed," Peterson said of the Walker administration. "They admit it doesn't have stakeholder input and it'd be a halfhearted effort, and that's too bad."
Also Tuesday, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who supports Obama's law, won Wisconsin's closely watched U.S. Senate race against former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who wanted to repeal the plan and replace it with a new approach. Democrats held on to the U.S. Senate, and Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives, meaning Obamacare won't be repealed, though conservatives in Congress could still seek to hold up its implementation.
Walker announced in December 2011 that his administration was stopping work on a Wisconsin exchange until the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on whether the federal law was constitutional. Facing criticism from conservatives wanting nothing to do with the health law, Walker also ended up turning down $38 million in federal money that could have gone to implementing it in the state.
Once the Supreme Court ruled in June that the law was largely constitutional, Walker said he wanted to wait until after the fall election and then decide how to comply with the law if the new president and Congress didn't address health care.
Spokesmen for the state Department of Health Services and the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance had no comment Wednesday, but Walker made clear that the question of what to do is still up in the air.
"We haven't made a decision yet," Walker said Wednesday. "The question from our standpoint is what option is best for the taxpayers of Wisconsin."
Late Tuesday, Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), the likely next Assembly speaker, said it was "too early to get into" the question of the federal law and said he would confer with his caucus and Walker to decide how to move forward.
"I believed at eight o'clock tonight and I believe at midnight that Obamacare is still bad for our state," Vos said, referring to when polls closed and when results were known.
"I will bring our caucus together to decide how we move Wisconsin forward while I think the country moved backward," Vos said. "Unfortunately, we have four years to pay the price for a bad decision made tonight."
State Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), a member of the Legislature's budget committee and a strong supporter of the president's law, said the Obama administration might not have any leeway under the law to waive any deadlines that the Walker administration fails to meet.
"They mistakenly thought that there was some flexibility in these deadlines, and there isn't . . . those deadlines are baked into the federal law," Richards said of Republicans. "They wasted an entire year on this, and I really think it's a mistake. I think they need to sit down and get a bipartisan plan that's right for Wisconsin and written by Wisconsinites and stop the political posturing."
Peterson agreed the state should have moved forward with its planning more aggressively and shared the details of its plans with stakeholders such as consumers, doctors and insurers to get their input. But he said he hoped that state and federal officials would be able to work with one another again.
"Here's my hope, that there's movement both ways," Peterson said. "Hopefully, the grown-ups come out on both sides and say let's get this done."
Don Walker and Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this article.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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