MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature has passed some of the most ambitious welfare reform legislation in the nation, and the most recent package of nine bills is receiving a warm welcome from the Trump administration, according to the lawmaker who helped lead the package to passage.
State Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) recently met at the White House with President Donald Trump’s special adviser on Medicaid, and deputy secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
“We had a really good discussion about what we need to do,” Kapenga told MacIver News Service last week on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN.
The Trump administration has been more than receptive to states like Wisconsin seeking waivers to implement broader work requirements for welfare benefits.
In January, Kentucky became the first state to win approval from the Trump administration on waivers for work-based welfare reforms. The move came a day after the Republican president rolled out new guidance encouraging states to apply for waivers, the first move of its kind in the 50-year history of the Medicaid program.
“The people we met with were saying, ‘Listen, what you guys are doing is exactly what we want to see. We want you to keep pushing because we know the reforms need to be made,’” Kapenga said. “It was very encouraging to see the Trump administration fully behind reforming the system as it is because they see it doesn’t work.”
Wisconsin’s welfare reform package, passed last month on party lines and awaiting Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature, includes increasing work requirements and creating a health savings account-style Medicaid program that could be huge savings for taxpayers.
The state is seeking a federal waiver to require able-bodied adults, including parents of school-aged children, to spend 30 hours per week working or training for work in order to receive FoodShare and BadgerCare (Wisconsin’s Medicaid program) benefits. Currently, able-bodied adults must spend at least 20 hours per week at a job or training for one in order to receive the taxpayer-funded benefits.
“We do have one of the most aggressive fights against poverty in the nation,” Kapenga said.
Indiana in 2015 rolled out Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, a high-deductible health plan administered by a Managed Care Entity, over a three-year demonstration period. Indiana’s plan provides health insurance coverage to most non-disabled Indiana adults ages 19 to 64 whose family income is at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and who are ineligible for other Medicaid or Medicare programs.
Wisconsin is seeking federal permission for a similar plan, but wants to “take it more full scale,” Kapenga said.
The state’s recently passed welfare reform package would change the Earned Income Tax Credit distribution system to low-income tax return filers. Instead of a lump sum payment, EITC recipients would receive monthly checks. The idea, Kapenga said, is to teach real-world budgeting skills.
“What oftentimes happens is, they’re not used to being on a budget and they go out and basically blow it, and several months later they’re back in the same rut, in the same hole,” the senator said. “We said, ‘Why don’t we change this program and actually do it on a monthly check so they can actually start getting into the habit [of budget discipline]?’”
The welfare reform package also requires drug screening and treatment for those seeking public housing assistance. And anyone with a home worth approximately $321,000 – twice the median value – would no longer be eligible for welfare benefits.
Not a single Democrat supported the reform package, insisting that the bills will only punish the poor.
But reform advocates point to a simple fact: The vast majority of full-time employees do not live in poverty. In short, work equals success.
“We are removing barriers to work, investing in job and skills training for the unemployed and underemployed, and expanding programs that incentivize work,” Walker said earlier this year in announcing a special session on welfare reform. “We are making it easier for people to get a job and ensuring that everyone who wants a job can find one.”
A Walker spokeswoman did not return an email seeking comment, including on when the governor plans to sign the bills into law.
Wisconsin is one of at least a dozen states seeking federal waivers requiring able-bodied adults to work in order to receive Medicaid. Kentucky was the first to receive Trump administration approval. It wasn’t the last. Indiana and Arkansas followed suit.
Kapenga said Wisconsin’s chances look good.
“We just have to go through a process in the state to revise the waiver that was already submitted,” he said. The update should be completed in the next month or so, he added.
“[The Trump administration] told us, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease in Washington, so start squeaking,’” Kapenga said.
Trump administration officials could not be reached for comment Monday.