Wisconsin Voters Can Say Yes to Health Care Reform
Local referendums will advise the Legislature
As Sen. Joe Biden said duringlast week’s vice presidential debate, this year’s election may be the most important in recent history. While the unpopular war and the Wall Street crisis are perhaps the most urgent issues in the presidential race, health care runs a very close third, with concerns about skyrocketing insurance premiums and the fast-increasing number of uninsured citizens.
In some Wisconsin communities, voters will attempt to influence the state Legislature’s health care agenda through an advisory referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Ballots in more than 20 Wisconsin communities will feature the following referendum question: “Shall the state Legislature enact health care reform legislation by Dec. 31, 2009, that guarantees to every Wisconsin resident affordable coverage as good as what is provided to state legislators?”
To date, more than 32,000 Wisconsin residents have signed petitions to bring this question to a public vote. In the Milwaukee area, the question will appear on ballots in Oak Creek and South Milwaukee. Volunteers gathered and filed more than 1,500 signatures from South Milwaukee residents and about 2,000 from Oak Creek residents. These numbers surpass the quotas that must be met to place the referendum on the ballot Nov. 4.
Oak Creek resident Kathleen Slamka, one of these volunteers, gathered signatures with her daughter at the city’s public concert series. “I’ve collected a lot of signatures in the past, and these were by far the easiest signatures to get. The hard part was hearing people’s stories,” Slamka said. “Everyone knows someone who doesn’t have health insurance, and a lot of times it’s their kids or grandkids.”
Defining Health Care Reform
Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a statewide social justice coalition, organized an effort to bring the referendum question to ballots in communities with hotly contested state Senate races. Robert Kraig, the group’s program director, said 750,000 Wisconsin voters will be eligible to vote on the referendum, which represents a monumental opportunity to advocate real change.
“Because health care reform is one of the top issues in state legislative races, all the candidates are saying they are for change, but what does that mean? The referendum defines ‘change’ and forces candidates to take a position that is meaningful to voters,” he said.
While legislators are not legally required to use referendum results in their policymaking, such a high-profile public vote sends a message about what constituents need and expect of their elected officials.
“I think that most legislators do believe they’re supposed to represent their constituents,” Kraig said. “They can be influenced by a strongly worded position that people take, and a referendum like this one sets up the conditions needed for reform to happen in the Legislature.”
On March 6, Senate Democrat Jon Erpenbach introduced the “Healthy Wisconsin” proposal, which sought to guarantee all state residents health insurance comparable to that of state legislators. But Republicans in the Assembly’s health care committee rejected the proposal, preventing it from reaching the floor for debate.
Kraig attributes the demise of Healthy Wisconsin to Assembly conservatives’ fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of health care reform Wisconsinites need. “Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch is for health savings accounts, and the chair of the health care committee, Leah Vukmir, is a very nice person but thinks the health care crisis is caused by the government getting involved in Medicare,” Kraig said. “These positions are not health care reform, they’re a step backward.”
In an August interview with WUWM, Vukmir argued that Healthy Wisconsin does not address health care costs: “All it does is take the current amount of money that we spend on health care premiums, spread it around to a payroll tax on employers and employees, and then magically assume that we’re going to continue to have the quality of health care that we’ve all come to know in our state,” she said.
Meanwhile, health care premiums continue to rise. According to a report by consumer health group Families USA, family health care premiums for Wisconsin residents have risen nearly 74% over the past eight years, while median earnings have risen only 15%.
However, if voters show strong support for the referendum, a proposal like Healthy Wisconsin is likely to receive the attention it deserves from the entire Legislature, Kraig said.
Added Slamka: “Our state legislators care about this problem, but do not wake up every morning worrying about what will happen to them. If this referendum passes, both sides, Democrats and Republicans, will have to talk about it.”