Power Grab in Wisconsin Would Harm SNAP, Medicaid Recipients

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

In last month’s elections, Democrats won all statewide elected offices in Wisconsin. They also received 54 percent of all ballots cast for state Assembly members. However, due to Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymandering of legislative seats, Republicans won 66 of 93 Assembly seats. The legislature is now attempting to rush through with exactly one minute of public hearing a set of bills that would make early voting harder, protect a conservative candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court, prevent  the state from withdrawing from the lawsuit that threatens protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions under the Affordable Care Act, and strip overall power from the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

Among the provisions in the package of bills is one that would lock into place the punitive policies of current Governor Scott Walker’s administration with respect to programs for low-income people. It would force the full implementation of Wisconsin’s harsh Medicaid waiver, which would require recipients under the poverty level to pay premiums and arbitrarily limit Medicaid eligibility for adults age 19-49 without dependent children to 48 months of coverage when they are not working or participating in a work program. The Medicaid waiver also includes a six-month lock-out period before members can reenroll—. The complexity of this waiver will make it harder for low-income people to maintain coverage and get the health care they need to thrive and work. It will also drive up administrative costs for the state and take away the new governor’s power to make even modest changes to the waiver.

The bill would also require the state to proceed with mandatory screening for substance use and drug testing by individuals seeking employment services under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) program. While screening for substance abuse is not a direct requirement of SNAP eligibility, unemployed people without children are limited by federal requirements to receiving SNAP for only 3 months during any 36-month period, unless they meet work requirements. Participation in SNAP E&T is one way to meet those requirements. People who don’t meet these work requirements are ultimately cut off from nutritional assistance under SNAP, and it is likely that more will be pushed out under Wisconsin’s proposed drug testing policy. (Governor Walker had also proposed requiring drug testing as a condition of eligibility for Medicaid, but the federal government did not allow this.)

The bill would also make it impossible for the new governor to make even minor changes to Medicaid or SNAP without legislative approval – even in times of natural disaster or other emergency. In trying to pass this bill, the Wisconsin legislature is being both cruel and attempting to subvert the will of the people, as shown in last month’s election. If these policies are implemented, they may also have lasting effects on the Wisconsin electorate. As political science professor Jamila Michener has found, when people have negative disempowering experiences with public programs, they are less likely to vote. All Wisconsinites – and all Americans – should oppose this attack on democracy.