Governor Walker's Medicaid director defends drug testing

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker's Medicaid director defended his plan to test Medicaid recipients for drugs, telling lawmakers Wednesday he believed it would be constitutional despite opponents who say it's clearly illegal.

Instead of accepting federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to people earning 38 percent more than the poverty level, Walker is instead pursuing plans to move people out of Medicaid with the intent of reducing costs.

Walker later this month plans to ask President Donald Trump's administration to approve a waiver allowing for childless adults on Medicaid to be tested for drugs. Walker also wants to drug test able-bodied adults seeking other public benefits including food stamps and jobless payments, a request that former President Barack Obama's administration blocked. An estimated 49,000 people could be affected.

Under Walker's planned proposal to President Trump's administration, Medicaid applicants would be tested for drugs based on their answers to a screening. Those who fail a drug test would be given treatment.

"The goal is not to catch someone doing drugs and throw them off the rolls," Heifitz told the Assembly's federalism committee.

Committee member Democratic Rep. Jimmy Anderson, an attorney from Madison, asked Heifitz if he thought drug testing Medicaid recipients would be legal.

"I'm not a constitutional scholar," Heifitz said, before saying he believed it would "pass muster."

Walker is pursuing the plan after the state lost out on $1.7 billion through June 2019 for refusing federal funding for the full expansion, based on the latest figures from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Democrats and other advocates have been pressuring Walker for years to take the Medicaid expansion money, calls which he continues to ignore.

Heifitz and Eric Borgerding, president of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, told the committee Wednesday that the state should be rewarded for its hybrid approach that resulted in more people being insured under Medicaid without taking the federal money.

Wisconsin's decision has essentially resulted in the state being penalized $280 million a year in lost Medicaid money, Borgerding said. The state should fight for receiving as much federal money for Medicaid as other states that chose to expand under the current law, he said.

"No other issue for which decisions are made in Washington has as much impact on this building and the work you do inside it," Borgerding said. "It is a debate, the result of which, will land squarely in your laps, for better or for worse."

Heifitz assured lawmakers that the governor's administration was fighting for the state to be rewarded for its approach. Walker has had to walk a fine line as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, balancing competing interests of GOP governors who took the Medicaid money and others who did not.

U.S. House Republicans last month failed to muster enough support to replace the Affordable Care Act with a plan championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville. Borgerding, Wisconsin state lawmakers, advocacy groups and others had been outspoken about certain elements of that proposal they said would have hurt Wisconsin, including reducing subsidies that are critical for low-income people in Wisconsin who earn just above the poverty line and don't qualify for Medicaid.

Talks in Congress are ongoing, but it's unclear whether a replacement to former President Barack Obama's law will get enough support to pass, or when that may happen.

"I'm not going to predict what's going to happen at the federal level," Heifitz told lawmakers.