Walker, Evers spar over cost of Wisconsin health insurance

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker accused Democratic rival Tony Evers of getting his "facts wrong" Tuesday in his first television ad of the general election, a spot that hinges on a comparison of health insurance costs in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Walker issued a series of tweets Tuesday morning complaining about the ad, which also accuses Walker of putting his personal political ambitions above the best interests of Wisconsin residents. It faults Walker for rejecting federal money to expand Medicaid, a decision that Evers alleges led to higher health insurance costs in the state.

The ad cites a Kaiser Family Foundation report that said the benchmark health insurance plan sold for 2018 in Minnesota was $385, or 47 percent less than the $569 it cost for a comparable plan in Wisconsin.

Walker said the spot was misleading because Minnesota put in place a reinsurance program to lower rates for 2018. Walker proposed a similar program, which the Legislature approved this year, but it won't go into effect until 2019.

In 2017, before Minnesota's self-insurance program took effect, the average cost for plans was $412 in Minnesota and $368 in Wisconsin.

"Not surprising -- Tony Evers has his facts wrong in his very first general election TV ad," Walker tweeted. "He's actually making the case for OUR health care reforms instead."

Walker's criticism came as Evers was launching a multi-city tour this week focused on the rising cost of health care. That issue, along with education and the condition of Wisconsin's roads, has been a focus for Evers in the battle against Walker.

Evers' campaign manager Maggie Gau said there was a difference between changes Minnesota implemented after taking the federal Medicaid expansion money and Walker's decision, in an election year, to propose the reinsurance program.

"Minnesota made policy changes that controlled costs," Gau said. "Walker threw an election year Hail Mary."

While it's true that Minnesota's reinsurance program has brought down insurance premiums in recent years, those decreases have been marginal.

Minnesota touted some of the nation's lowest health care premiums when the Affordable Care Act launched in 2014 but suffered through years of double-digit premium increases. Minnesota lawmakers responded in 2017 by passing a $542 million reinsurance program to help insurers cover costly patients and control health insurance rates for two years. That came after the state's two largest insurance companies left the individual market, sparking fears of a mass exodus and leading Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to call the Affordable Care Act "no longer affordable to increasing numbers of people."

Walker referenced that quote in one of a series of tweets where he accused Evers of "struggling to run against our record of real results for Wisconsin's hard-working families" and "resorting to attacks that only mislead voters."

Walker also proposed the reinsurance program after enrollment in Wisconsin dropped, fewer providers offered coverage and rates went up 44 percent this year. The $200 million program is expected to lower rates on average in 2019 by 3.5 percent.

In Minnesota, health insurance premiums have stabilized in the months since the reinsurance program was passed. Health insurers are proposing average decreases ranging from 3 percent to more than 12 percent for 2019, following similar decreases in 2018.