Scott Walker’s Path to Re-Election: ‘Muddying the Waters’ on Health Care

Gov. Scott Walker is softening his hardline opposition to Obamacare as health care becomes a vulnerable issue in his campaign.

[Photo: Scott Walker and Donald trump walk together.]
Gov. Scott Walker's health-care policy stances have largely fallen in line with President Trump. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), whose effort to undercut the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made health care more expensive and less accessible, is recasting himself as a defender of quality health-care access in his campaign for re-election.

Walker has been at the forefront of the coordinated GOP plan to ensure the ACA, also known as Obamacare, can’t function the way it was meant to when congressional Democrats passed the legislation in 2009. Walker has refused to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid under the ACA, dismissing expansion as “welfare” for families who live just above the poverty line. His administration joined a lawsuit in February meant to remove ACA protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Walker, like Donald Trump, ran for president on a pledge to repeal the health-care reform law.

But you’d never know that today, as Walker campaigns for a third term against Democrat Tony Evers, who wants to expand Medicaid access and supports Wisconsin Democrats’ push for a public option. On the campaign trail and in interviews, Walker has said he would convene the state legislature to pass protections for pre-existing conditions if the anti-ACA lawsuit is successful—meaning the governor is pledging to protect people with pre-existing conditions while trying to undo those same protections in the ACA.

Walker has claimed that in a third term as governor, he would uphold the very pre-existing conditions protections his administration is trying to end via lawsuit.

Walker, one of the state-level Republican officials who refused billions in federal funding to expand Medicaid, hasn’t been entirely opposed to taking federal money to make health care more accessible and affordable in Wisconsin. In July, he accepted $166 million from the Trump administration to address a 44 percent increase in health-care premiums for people buying insurance on the ACA exchanges.

Health-care advocates told Rewire.News that Walker’s health-care policies have led to an ACA marketplace with monthly premiums that far exceed the national average. In neighboring Minnesota, where lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton (D) have used the ACA’s mechanisms to keep health-care premiums in check, you can buy a silver premium plan on the ACA marketplace for $162 less per month than you can in Wisconsin.

Walker’s economic policies, rubber-stamped by the state’s GOP-majority legislature, have led to a marked disparity in health-care access between Wisconsin residents and Minnesotans, according to an analysis released in May by the Economic Policy Institute. The analysis found that “denying low-income families in Wisconsin access to Medicaid did not appear to have led to any greater take-up of private health insurance”—contradicting a frequent claim by Walker that people can simply gain access to private insurance if they don’t qualify for Medicaid.

“[Walker] knows darn well from polling that he’s very vulnerable on this issue,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a coalition that supports progressive health-care policies and has endorsed Evers. “Quite frankly, given the narrative that came from trying to repeal the ACA, it can’t be a very positive issue for him, but muddying the waters is the approach he’s taking …. Walker’s position has been on the hard right, and he’s tried his best to soften it this year. He’s trying to have it both ways on health care.”

It’s that strategic softening, Kraig said, that might create “a far less stark contrast” between the state’s gubernatorial candidates, instead of a race defined by the very different health-care positions held by Walker and Evers.

The consequences of Republicans’ refusal to expand Medicaid under the ACA were spelled out this week in a report released by the Government Accountability Office in coordination with the National Center for Health Statistics. One in five people with low incomes in states that did not expand Medicaid say they have forgone medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it, according to the report. In states that did expand Medicaid, that figure is less than ten percent.

Health-care business interests have lined up behind Walker’s re-election bid, with Anthem PAC, the political arm of health insurance company Anthem, donating $51,000 to political action committees backing Walker. Anthem PAC/WellPAC Wellpoint Inc., meanwhile, has given $30,000 to Walker-backing PACs. Pfizer PAC has put $21,000 toward Walker’s push for a third term. 

The health-care industry accounts for six of the 30 biggest contributors to Walker-supporting PACs.

“Walker has spent a lot of time and money to reposition himself on health care,” Kraig told Rewire.News. “But he’s still very good at servicing the big corporate interests.”

PACs supporting Evers, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly funded by labor unions, which came under attack during the economic austerity program Walker pushed early in his first term. No health-care industry donors appear on the list of entities that have donated to Evers-related PACs.

The Walker campaign did not respond to an interview request from Rewire.News.

Evers, who emerged from a crowded Democratic primary field to take on Walker in November, has said he would work with Democrats in the legislature to make BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s health-care program for people with low incomes, available to all state residents. The “BadgerCare for All” bill is similar to proposals by some congressional Democrats to make Medicare available to anyone who wants to join the program in lieu of private insurance. 

A 40-year-old with an ACA silver plan would save around 24 percent on health-care premiums and deductibles if they were able to sign up for a Wisconsin public option instead, according to an analysis from Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Some Wisconsin residents could save up to 40 percent on premiums and deductibles.

Groups backing Evers have launched an ad blitz against Walker’s health-care policies. A Stronger Wisconsin, a group aligned with the Democratic Governors Association, released an ad in September featuring a woman with breast cancer saying Walker’s attack on the ACA’s pre-existing conditions protections would leave her unable to pay for life-saving care.

An ad released this week by A Stronger Wisconsin centers on the Walker administration’s role in the lawsuit to gut the ACA’s protections for pre-existing conditions. “Under Walker’s plan, as long as the insurance company can call it a pre-existing condition, they can drop you right when you need them the most,” the ad says.

Evers leads Walker in recent polling by as much as eight points, though Walker has the edge in a few polls.