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EMILY'S POST: Thoughtful commentary on politics, current events and culture in Madison
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Emily's Post: DHS head Dennis Smith spins health care reform, Prosser's poor temperament
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Dennis Smith is the fox guarding the health care hen house

Anyone paying attention was rightly worried when Gov. Scott Walker appointed Dennis Smith to head up the Department of Health Services (DHS) earlier this year. Smith had already made it clear that he was no friend of public health programs like Medicare. He'd done a stint with the very conservative Heritage Foundation writing missives urging states to drop the program entirely, as well as harshly criticizing President Obama's health care reform plan.

So when the results of a Doyle administration-requested study of how the federal health care mandates would impact Wisconsin were published last week I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise that Smith and his office handled things the way they did.

Surprising, no, but definitely outrageous.

First, Smith held a press conference wherein it was stipulated that the by-invitation-only crowd of reporters were not actually allowed to quote any of the officials.

That's right: A public official talking about his job banned the press from actually relaying his words to the public.

But wait, there's more! Smith then went on to completely misrepresent and spin the results of the report. The press release allegedly summarizing those findings, put out by the Office of Free Market Health Care (I didn't even know we had one -- talk about government agencies ripe for cutting!), highlights all of the negative aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) -- but none of the many, many positives.

The report's author, nationally renowned health care economist Dr. Jonathan Gruber of MIT, has quickly made his displeasure with DHS' handling of the situation known. In an interview with The Capital Times, Gruber says, "They picked out the most negative aspects of the report to highlight... Overall I think health care reform is a great thing for Wisconsin."

What did Smith and the DHS completely fail to mention?

  • Under the ACA some 340,000 uninsured Wisconsinites will gain coverage.
  • Wisconsinites who buy insurance on their own will receive $729 million in federal subsidies to make health insurance more affordable.
  • 41% will receive very large premium reductions averaging 56 percent.
  • 47% of Wisconsin small employers will see premium reductions averaging 16%.

Smith and Insurance Commissioner Ted Nickel only want people to focus on the parts of the report that show some increases in premiums for certain segments of the population -- but here's the money quote from Gruber:

State officials put the spotlight on projections showing rates are going up for some people in the individual and small group markets, but they did not talk much about the reason why. Gruber says it is because reforms will finally correct a longstanding health care inequity -- the common insurance industry practice of cherry picking, or keeping rates low for the young and healthy by charging a lot or even denying coverage outright to the old and the sick with pre-existing conditions . "Here's my counterspin," Gruber says. "It's not that people have to pay more. It's that people have artificially been paying too little." [emphasis added]

Frankly, I'm not a fan of anyone having to pay much of anything to make sure their health needs are addressed -- I'm more of a universal care proponent -- but I recognize a far-better-than-nothing scenario when I see one, and the most important thing in all of this is that more people get any access at all to necessary care, and at some semblance of an affordable price tag.

That we don't appear to have a DHS Secretary who recognizes that fundamental truth is, as I see it, a huge problem for Wisconsin.

Prosser not a criminal -- but no saint, either

So the special prosecutor given the task of determining whether or not Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's actions toward fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley warranted criminal charges has decided that no, what Prosser did was not a crime.

Prosser has taken this news to mean full vindication, as have many of his supporters.

The full police report (PDF) and documents (PDF) related to the investigation have since been released to the public, however, painting a picture of an ill-tempered, unpredictable, and perhaps ethically compromised justice at best.

Based on the interviews with those present at the time of the altercation the decision not to file criminal charges seems warranted. I will say that. The ongoing Wisconsin Judicial Commission investigation into whether or not judicial misconduct occurred, however, looks to be completely -- forgive the pun -- justified.

There doesn't appear to have been any "choking," but certainly there was a verbal altercation followed by a minor physical run-in that simply should have never happened between members of what is supposed to be the highest, most studied and reasoned court in the land.

Prosser still acted inappropriately in this instance and in many other incidents also cited during the course of the investigation. His temperament is apparently so poor that "members of the state Supreme Court painted a picture of Justice David Prosser as a sometimes hot-headed colleague who called other justices names and at times made them fear for their safety."

Further, in the 40-minute interview with investigators, Prosser says that he relied on newspaper reports more than court record when making his decision in the highly controversial case ultimately upholding Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting bill. I'll let the blogger at X Beyond X explain why this is especially preposterous:

Just imagine if a juror decided a defendant's guilt by relying upon what was presented in the media rather than what was presented in court... Prosser raises his voice and becomes agitated at the media's reporting of this incident at 1:15; note, the same media he condemns for being inaccurate in their reporting of this incident is the same media Prosser relied upon to decide this exceptionally important case. Prosser also contradicts himself, at times denying being angry while at others admitting being angry at the time of the incident.

Meanwhile Prosser's fellow ethically-challenged justices, Michael Gableman and Annette Ziegler, seem to have both gone to great lengths to cover up their colleague's bad behavior. While almost all of the justices kept written records of what happened that day, Gableman and Zielger were alone in refusing to release all of their notes to police. Ziegler further claims that she didn't witness the events that day, even though she was standing next to Prosser when it happened. Having "not seen" what happened, though, didn't stop her from telling investigators that "I know he didn't choke her." Which is it, then?

No matter which way you slice it, the now public record speaks volumes about the massive dysfunction of our current Supreme Court. It certainly wouldn't be fair to blame all of that on Prosser, but letting such a monumental violation of workplace safety standards and basic decency -- along with what looks very much like an attempt to cover it up by fellow justices Gableman and Ziegler, at least -- go without any accountability or punishment will only serve to further erode public confidence in and overall effectiveness of the body.

It doesn't help matters that pressure from Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and other Republicans in the Legislature to make a decision on whether or not to uphold Walker's controversial "budget repair bill" busting unions as quickly as possible apparently influenced Prosser's desire to rush the process. The Supreme Court is supposed to act as a check on the powers of the other branches of government (and vice versa). It should not be influenced by a particular faction among them.

(And oh, thank goodness Fitzgerald the Lesser has decided to throw his hat in the ring to run for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Herb Kohl. He and Wisconsin's perpetual candidate Mark Neumann should be very happy together.)

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