Cap Times Idea Fest: Ron Johnson, Tammy Baldwin offer divergent paths on health care | Politics and Elections

Wisconsin’s two U.S. Senators offered radically different visions for health care reform during Q&A sessions Saturday at the Cap Times Idea Fest.

U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin fielded questions on a Democratic single-payer proposal and Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. 

Johnson joined Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Bill Cassidy and Dean Heller last week in introducing legislation that’s being viewed as the GOP’s last shot at fulfilling its promise to overturn President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation. 

The new Republican proposal would replace the Obamacare structure of cost-sharing, tax credits and Medicaid expansion with block grants offered to states each year. It would also eliminate the ACA’s individual and employer mandates and its medical device tax.

Johnson’s 2010 and 2016 campaigns focused heavily on his opposition to Obamacare. But he said on Saturday his party’s efforts to undo the law were flawed from the start.

“My approach to fixing that mess would have first of all been to reach out to the other side,” Johnson said. “It was stupid, politically, to do this only with Republican votes on reconciliation.”

Johnson acknowledged that the ACA gave 20 million Americans insurance coverage they didn’t previously have, but argued higher deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses have rendered that insurance useless for some.



Sen. Ron Johnson speaks with WisPolitics editor Jeff Mayers during the Cap Times Idea Fest at UW-Madison.

Any efforts to undo the existing structure should “not pull the rug out from anyone,” Johnson said.

Johnson was adamant in his argument that a “Medicare for All” plan introduced by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and backed by Democrats “won’t work.” 

Cost estimates for the Sanders plan range from $16 trillion to $32 trillion over 10 years. Johnson argued that puts too much of a burden on an already unsustainable national debt of $20 trillion.

Baldwin is one of 15 Democratic senators who have signed onto the Sanders plan — although she seemed to acknowledge on Saturday that the proposal is a conversation starter rather than a bill that can earn Congressional approval.

“It is so clear that there is more that must be done so that every American can afford quality health care and have quality health care, and so in recent weeks we made a commitment to start that conversation,” Baldwin said.

Not only does she “proudly” support the single-payer bill, Baldwin said, she also supports efforts to allow people age 55 and older to buy into Medicare, create a public option in the Affordable Care Act and allow people to buy into Medicaid — or, in Wisconsin, BadgerCare. 

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The Democratic senator acknowledged there are parts of the ACA that need fixing, and credited Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray for working on a bipartisan effort that could result in some consensus changes. 

Baldwin, who was in the House when Obamacare was debated and passed, spoke proudly of her work on the legislation, highlighting a popular provision that allows people under age 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance.

Baldwin’s focus on access to health care came in part as the result of an illness much like spinal meningitis that she suffered when she was 9 years old. Even after her recovery, when her mother and grandparents tried to get her insured, she was “the child with the pre-existing health condition.”

Issues of health care access and affordability were what inspired her to run for the Dane County Board of Supervisors in 1986, she said.

Baldwin said it’s important to note the “leaps forward” that have been achieved in health care policy, in particular noting the elimination under Obamacare of annual and lifetime caps and the ability for people with pre-existing conditions to receive coverage. 

“It is time to take the next steps, because we know we can do better and we’ve got to start that conversation now,” Baldwin said.

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