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Health care costs won’t go away

By Matt Pommer

An estimated 1.1 million Wisconsin residents now get their health needs met through Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor.

Enrollment growth has averaged 9.7 percent annually for the last 10 years. More than $6 billion is now spent on the program annually. The federal government pays about 58 percent of the Medicaid costs in Wisconsin; the latest figure puts the state cost at $2.1 billion annually.

Half of the participants are children, a quarter are parents or pregnant women, and the other quarter represents the elderly and disabled, who account for 66 percent of the spending, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Medicaid was started in 1965 as a companion to Medicare, which provides health coverage for the elderly. Medicaid kicks in for the elderly when assets are near exhaustion. That often is a reflection of nursing-home costs.

Medicaid costs are at the forefront of issues that will confront the new governor elected in November. Medicaid programs have helped Wisconsin achieve the second highest percentage of residents with health coverage. Only Massachusetts has a higher percentage.

The 1.1 million people covered means more than half of Wisconsin residents get their health needs met through taxpayer-financed programs. There are more than 800,000 people over the age of 65 who are eligible for Medicare. Other programs are veterans and military health care and health insurance programs for those working for state, municipal, and federal governments.

Some might like to borrow a phrase from the congressional debates and label the programs as “federal options.” Of course, you have to be poor, old or working for a government to get access to the biggest of those programs.

Others will suggest that these Wisconsin numbers amount to socialism run amuck. Some on the far right might suggest it amounts to communism.

Health industry observers say neither Medicare nor Medicaid covers the true costs of care. That’s made up by charging higher premiums for health insurance. Put bluntly, those with private health insurance, including government workers, are subsidizing Medicare and Medicaid.

Medicaid costs will challenge the next governor. Medical costs are unlikely to decline, and some in government may want to squeeze down Medicaid coverage.

That will present a challenge to those who advocate for the poor and children.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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