Sarah Blackthorne is an acquaintance of mine, a fellow freelance writer and photographer. She's relied on the drug coverage provided by the state's BadgerCare program to allow her to function and work. Then, last month, she was cut from the rolls.
Sarah suffers from debilitating migraines that are manageable only with drugs. And because she doesn't make a lot of money, those pills are prohibitively expensive without some kind of assistance.
"This health care has saved my life," she says. But the letter Sarah received in March said her coverage would end on April 1 because, it claimed, her renewal had not been completed. She says the renewal documents were never sent.
When Sarah called to ask what had happened, her BadgerCare agent scheduled a "renewal interview," for which she was charged a nonrefundable $60 fee. She still doesn't know when - or if - her coverage will continue. "It's possible I will lose coverage since the system is facing both overload and a downsizing due to the budget cuts."
Sarah won't get a final answer until the end of the month, and it will hinge on what happens with Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposals - major portions of which are currently tied up in court.
There's considerable confusion over what, exactly, Walker's plan would mean for programs like BadgerCare, SeniorCare and Medicare overall in Wisconsin. One estimate, from Wisconsin Farmers Union legislative director Kara Slaughter, puts the number of state residents liable to lose coverage at around 62,000.
As for SeniorCare, even some ardent Walker supporters (like Department of Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith and Republican Sen. Alberta Darling) have voiced discomfort over the governor's plan to switch 91,000 members from the state-run prescription drug program to the private plans available through Medicare Part D.
Walker claims this will save the state money, but Medicare Part D has a history of doing just the opposite. Under it, the government is forbidden from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies as is done in other programs. Instead, the private insurance companies now representing enrollees simply pay whatever the drug companies ask - payments heavily subsidized by taxpayers.
In fact, SeniorCare is quite solvent, reporting a $20 million surplus for the last two-year fiscal term, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the paper says the proposed changes could reap the private companies that sell prescription drugs in Wisconsin an additional $100 million a year.
Kathy Lynn Sliter, a Madison resident who has been living with multiple sclerosis for nearly 20 years, knows firsthand the results of having one's drug plan switched to Medicare Part D.
"It put a middleman into the process that we didn't need," she says, referring to the insurance companies that entered the picture. "They're not looking out for our best interests."
Kathy has to take betaseron, one of the most common and effective treatments for MS. It used to cost $1,000 a month, a price it had stayed at for decades. But since Kathy's plan was switched to Part D, the drug's cost has tripled, to a whopping $3,000 a month.
By further comparison, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is allowed to negotiate drug prices, pays an average of 58% less for drugs than Medicare Part D.
One problem identified by a congressional oversight committee is that the private insurance companies, referred to as "sponsors" in the government program, have grossly underreported the amount of drug rebates they receive during the year. That means they're not passing those savings on to enrollees.
According to an analysis by One Wisconsin Now, the companies that currently administer Medicare Part D prescription drug plans in Wisconsin have over the last several years given $1.3 million to the campaigns of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Governors Association, which backed Walker to the tune of $5 million in 2010.
The health of many state residents will also be affected by Walker's union-busting agenda. Just ask Sheilah Kring.
A 34-year-old teaching assistant at the UW-Madison, Sheilah makes just $12,000 a year while contending with a laundry list of health problems. The insurance coverage she gets through her union, the Teaching Assistants' Association, allows her to survive: "I can live below the poverty line because I get those benefits."
Sheilah is concerned that Walker's plan to gut collective bargaining rights and spin off the UW-Madison will mean the TAA will have less control over the health benefits received by its members. That could mean higher co-pays for appointments, among other things. And that, Sheilah notes, "means sick people pay more," since they must go to the doctor more often.
Much remains unknown about the future of medical assistance, as Walker's budget provides little detail. Instead, it gives the state wide berth for "modifying benefits, revising provider reimbursement models, developing standards and methodologies for eligibility, and reducing income levels for purposes of determining eligibility."
The Walker administration claims these changes are necessary to the state's financial health. What it seems to be ignoring, however, is the physical health of Wisconsinites themselves.
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at TheDailyPage.com.