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Key Wisconsin Republican says protecting insurance priority

MADISON (AP) -- Republicans are committed to ensuring that no one loses coverage when President Barack Obama's federal health care law is repealed and replaced, the chairman of the Wisconsin state Assembly's Health Committee said Thursday.

Wisconsin health care leaders and those who buy insurance under the current law are bracing for an unclear future as President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress push ahead with promises to act quickly to replace Obama's signature legislative achievement. Industry leaders said at a Thursday panel discussion that they think Wisconsin's hybrid approach to adopting the current law could be a model going forward.

But "priority number one" will be making sure the roughly 234,000 people who purchase insurance through the federal marketplace now don't lose coverage, state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said during a forum sponsored by Wisconsin Health News.

"We don't want to give up any ground," the New Berlin Republican said. "Whatever we do going forward we have to take the time to think it through and see for every action we take there is a reaction."

Others on the panel representing health insurers and Wisconsin hospitals said that despite the uncertainty, people should not panic.

"I tell people to R-E-L-A-X," said Mike Wallace, chief executive officer of Fort HealthCare, echoing comments made by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers when the team got off to a rough start in 2014. "Focus on what we can control. That's what our patients, and the state, have come to expect from us."

Wisconsin is well positioned as the law is reworked, Wallace said. That's because House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump's incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus are both from Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker has taken a unique approach to the current law, he said.

"The decision makers are looking at what does health care reform look like, what should it look like," Wallace said. "Wisconsin is in the conversation."

Obama's 2010 law extended health insurance to some 20 million Americans, prevented insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and steered billions of dollars to states for the Medicaid health program for the poor.

Walker took the unique approach of expanding Medicaid coverage and lowering income eligibility levels, while rejecting the federal money to pay for it. The state has turned down nearly $679 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

In rejecting the money, Walker argued that the federal government can't be trusted to keep up its funding commitment to the states.

Wisconsin's expansion covered adults without dependent children with incomes below the poverty threshold of $11,880 and provided health insurance for 143,000 people through BadgerCare Plus, the state's largest Medicaid program, as of end of November. Adults with dependent children and incomes above the poverty limit are eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance over the marketplace set up under the federal law.

The critical question is whether the law will disappear immediately or be phased out and what happens in between, said Eric Borgerding, head of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. The biggest success of the current law was expanding coverage and those gains must be protected, he said.

While expanding coverage was a positive, the costs were not sustainable, Wallace said.

"We want to take the good parts and move it forward," he said.

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