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Election forces Wisconsin governor's hand on health care

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — President Barack Obama’s re-election is forcing the hand of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, R, who had stopped all efforts to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) — the federal health care reform law — in the hopes that Republicans would take over in Washington.

Obama’s victory coupled with Democrats’ keeping control of the Senate assures that the Affordable Health Care Act will continue to go into effect. Walker’s administration and Republican leaders in the state Legislature are now scrambling to figure out their next move.

Wisconsin faces a Nov. 16 deadline to inform the Obama administration whether the state will implement an online health care marketplace, or exchange, or let the federal government do it. Each state’s exchange must be operational in 2014 under the health care law.

Walker told reporters Wednesday in Milwaukee that he will be meeting with state officials this week to discuss the next steps. He downplayed the urgency of the situation, saying no matter what the state does, the federal government won’t review it for months. Walker has said he doesn’t think it would be a problem for the state to get an extension.

“Even after notifying them, we have until next fall to make modifications as we see fit,” Walker said. “We haven’t made a decision yet.”

Walker said the choice for his administration was whether to accept an exchange run by the federal government, set up its own or pursue a combination.

“The question, from our standpoint, is what option is best for the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Walker said.

Walker halted implementation in late 2011, pending the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. When the court found in June that Congress had the authority to impose a tax on taxpayers who fail to own a minimum level of health coverage, Walker then said he was holding off on implementing the changes until after the election, in the hopes that Republicans would win and overturn it.

Walker also rejected $38 million in federal money that could have gone toward paying for implementing the law.

Advocates of the law say Tuesday’s election results in Wisconsin show there is support for it. Wisconsin voters elected a proponent of the law, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, to the U.S. Senate over Republican Tommy Thompson, who vowed to be the 51st vote to repeal it. Obama also carried Wisconsin by nearly 7 percentage points.

Supporters of the law, who had urged Walker to continue with implementation both before and after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of PPACA, renewed that call Wednesday.

“Now that the election is over and the Affordable Care Act will be implemented, it is time for the Walker Administration to stop playing political games with the health of Wisconsin’s citizens,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “The design of this new competitive health marketplace is critically important.”

Citizen Action released emails it obtained under the state’s open records law that indicate that Walker administration officials believe they can meet the Nov. 16 deadline.

One email dated Aug. 2 from Department of Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith asks J.P. Wieske, the legislative liaison and public information officer for the state insurance commissioner’s office, whether that office can meet the Nov. 16 deadline based on the outcome of the election.

“We think we can be ready to file by Nov 16th, if there is interest in moving forward,” Wieske replied.

Wieske on Wednesday wouldn’t say whether he stood by what he wrote.

“Right now, we’re just going to wait for the administration to meet,” Wieske said. One of the discussion points is what role the Department of Insurance will play in setting up the exchanges, he said.

DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley had no immediate comment.

Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards, an advocate for the law, said whatever work Walker’s administration may be doing should be out in the open and not secret.

“The time for making excuses for doing nothing is over,” Richards said. “It’s all been a charade. It’s time to act and construct an exchange that will benefit Wisconsin.”

Republican state legislative leaders said they were looking toward Walker’s administration for the next move.

“We’re certainly going to work with them closely and take the lead from the administration,” said incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Sen. Scott Fitzgerald. “I don’t know enough to even comment on where it is.”

State Rep. Robin Vos, co-chairman of the Legislature’s powerful budget committee and one of the front-runners to take over as Assembly speaker next year, was also looking toward Walker.

“We’re going to look and see what the potential is for what we’re allowed under federal law,” Vos said. “Just because the president was re-elected doesn’t change my position that Obamacare is still wrong for the country and I’m not going to do anything to hurt the citizens of Wisconsin.”


Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.


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