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Retirement debate central to fall elections

By Matt Pommer

More than 50 Wisconsin employers have signed up for the federal Early Retirement Reinsurance Program to help continue health coverage for those retiring between ages 55 and 64.

The program will reimburse 80 percent of annual health care costs for each eligible retiree and eligible spouse, surviving spouse or dependent. The $5 billion temporary plan has attracted major businesses, union groups and government employers in the state.

Building-trade unions have joined the new program. And government participants include Milwaukee and Antigo schools; Milwaukee, Washington and Racine counties; and the cities of Waukesha, West Allis and Wisconsin Rapids.

Gov. Jim Doyle has hailed the quick action by Wisconsin employers. The money is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis until the money run out. Doyle noted the program is part of the national health care program.

Maybe Doyle is too optimistic. Republicans have spent the year denouncing the health care reform act and vowing to overturn it when they take control of Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee plays a central role in federal spending.

Newspaper reports informed the public that Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, one of those critics, had his county sign up for the federal money. Republicans are demanding less federal spending. Doyle estimates the national health care reform law will bring more than $750 million to the state.

In an August campaign debate, Walker criticized the Wisconsin health care efforts as too ambitious. The BadgerCare program, which provides coverage to thousands of working poor, has become bloated and needs to be scaled back, he said.

Ron Johnson, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin suggests the health reform legislation is undermining America. The early retirement provisions will phase out in 2014, when the new law takes full effect. But it could be much earlier if Republicans have their way.

Doyles office, long silent about the Republican attacks on the two-term governor, seems to have responded to the GOP critics when he announced the initial signup for the early retirement program.

According to a statement from the governor’s office, “Wisconsin is now America’s health-care provider, ranking first for health care quality, second in access to coverage, and providing health care access to every child.”

Long-term employees in the 55-64 bracket often have higher salaries than younger workers. Companies can pare back payroll costs if they can replace early retirees with younger workers. A guarantee of some health coverage makes early retirement packages more attractive.

The early retirement money could give the employers a couple of years of help until Republicans fulfill their promise to repeal the health care reform law.

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

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