Wisconsin "Budget Repair" Damages Public Trust

Posted on March 2, 2011

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Horticulture Unit, Fountain House

Overlooked within Wisconsin’s controversial “Budget Repair Bill” is a disturbing provision that would silence the voices of 90,000 adults with Serious Mental Illness from providing any input on severe cuts to, or even the elimination of, Medicaid and community mental health services. If passed, Wisconsin would be the first state to do away with public debate and legislative oversight on changes in Medicaid – a benefit that so many people living with mental illness depend on.
 
The Budget Repair Bill gives the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) broad power to create "emergency rules" on Medicaid.  Normally emergency administrative rules must be voted on by the Joint Finance Committee, after public hearings.  A second vote, also with public hearings, is then necessary to make the emergency rules final.
 
However, this bill maintains that Wisconsin's budget emergency is so dire that DHS must be given the power to create emergency rules without legislative vote or public input - despite the fact that over a dozen governmental and advocacy groups have shown that, even if Medicaid were completely eliminated, there would be no reduction in the State’s deficit.
 
Regardless of the budgetary impact or the service implications Medicaid cuts, there is no reason to make changes in secret.  
 
This lack of transparency would be troubling in of itself, but even more distressing to mental health groups, including NAMI Wisconsin, is that the recently appointed Secretary of Wisconsin’s DHS, Dennis Smith, is a former Heritage Foundation fellow. During his multiple-year tenure there, he penned a number of policy position papers about Medicaid. In one such paper, written in 2009, he argues that states like Wisconsin should do away with Medicaid entirely.
 
The Heritage Foundation has been a strong proponent of privatizing mental health services in states. This has been called re-institutionalization by some disability advocacy groups. One group called ADAPT staged a sit-in at the GOP headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin last weekAdvocates feared cuts in Medicaid would severely curtail community services (as in Milwaukee County, where Governor Walker served on the County Board) forcing many disabled individuals into adult homes. One of the protestors, Barbara Vedder summed it up this way to the press, "We are able to be in our home with jobs and be productive members of society because of Medicaid. We don't want to be put into nursing homes. This budget bill is not repairing us. It is destroying us!" 

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