By Scott Bauer
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to drug-test Medicaid recipients and increase premiums on poor people drew five fully positive comments out of more than 1,000 submitted by the public, with one of the supportive letters coming from his own lieutenant governor, according to a review by The Associated Press.
The supportive remarks amounted to less than half a percent of the comments submitted by doctors, religious leaders, insurance companies, foster parents and others during a 30-day period for the public to weigh in before Walker submitted his plan to the federal government. The Republican needs a waiver from President Donald Trump’s administration for any changes to take effect.
The plan would make Wisconsin the first state in the country to require a drug screening as a condition for Medicaid eligibility.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all because there was certainly no public push for these changes,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of the advocacy group Citizens Action, which helped organize comments against the plan and submitted more than 650 in opposition from individuals, doctors, nurses and others.
A total of 1,050 comments rolled into the state Department of Health Services starting on April 19, in emails, letters, public testimony and phone voicemails. The AP used the state’s open records law to obtain the comments, many of which were redacted by the state to remove names and other identifying information.
Walker — who has touted the proposal as a way to move people off public aid programs and into the workforce — said he made changes in response to the public comments before submitting his waiver request two weeks ago.
Those changes included scaling back the new premiums he wants to charge and reducing the cost of a new co-payment for emergency room visits. The plan also now allows people who refuse a drug test to reapply for Medicaid benefits when they consent to treatment, rather than getting shut out for six months.
But the core proposals remained unaltered.
In response to the AP’s tally, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor’s plan has generated support through other avenues.
“The governor hears from employers all the time who say they are looking to hire people who are ready to work and able to pass a drug test,” Evenson said. “If someone fails the test, we offer treatment at no cost to them so they can get healthy and back into the workforce.”
Evenson called the proposal “reasonable, common-sense reforms to help people move from government dependence to true independence.”
Walker, who is up for re-election next year, has defended drug tests as a way to get people into treatment, which he wants to be funded by federal Medicaid money, so they can get a job.
Hundreds of people who submitted comments made clear they didn’t like them.
“Drug testing has been determined to be expensive, ineffective, and illegal,” wrote Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, a nonprofit Madison law firm that helps people get health care.
Others described Walker’s proposal as cruel, sad, demeaning or ineffective.
“You have espoused Jesus and are embracing the devil and demons that have gained control of the political process,” said another email, the name of the sender also redacted. “May God have mercy on you in this time of reckoning for surely you are cursed.”
The handful of supportive comments thanked Walker.
“As a hardworking citizen of the state and of my country, I think the drug testing should be required and not based on a health assessment screen,” one person said in a voicemail.
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and state Rep. John Nygren also wrote in support, citing their jobs as co-chairs of a governor’s task force on opioid abuse. They called the drug-screening proposal an important tool in identifying Medicaid recipients in need of treatment.
The Trump administration could make a decision by this summer. The new requirements are slated to take effect in April 2019.