Another CJR Town Hall in the Badger State

Wisconsinites sound off about health reform and Social Security

Can I talk to you about health reform, I asked twenty-eight-year-old Michelle Zywicki, who was working at a computer in the Waukesha public library. She and her husband have so little income that they can’t afford the cable charges for Internet access. “Nobody wants to talk about health reform because they are so angry,” she practically screamed at me. Zywicki was one of those angry people. You know what health reform means to me? I can’t get on BadgerCare Plus, she said.

She had heard that she could get insurance through a state Medicaid program for uninsured, childless adults with very low incomes. So she and her husband, a construction worker who is now disabled and recovering from shoulder surgery, applied about a year ago. “We got a letter saying there was a waiting list of 7000,” she told me. At about the same time, the state stopped enrolling new applicants. It didn’t have the funds to cover all those who needed the coverage. “I’ve given up hope on it,” Zywicki told me.

Zywicki may be right to forget about it. The day I chatted with her, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an ominous story about the state seeking $675 million more to fund health programs, including BadgerCare Plus, one of Wisconsin’s fastest-growing services. Both gubernatorial candidates say they want to find savings in the program. Republican Scott Walker hopes to limit the number of people BadgerCare Plus can serve by making it harder to qualify. Democrat Tom Barrett wants to trim $200 million from the program by insisting that participants become more cost conscious.

Zywicki is already all too aware of the costs of medical care. She and her husband are struggling to pay down a $15,000 hospital bill for his shoulder surgery. It’s tough, considering that she works only twenty hours a week at Dollar General and can’t find a full-time job that pays more. She brings home about $130 each week after taxes, with $90 going to pay the rent. The family gets $367 worth of food stamps every month. When she calmed down about BadgerCare Plus, she was able to talk about health reform. That subject made her almost as angry.

“So they will fine low income families for not being able to pay for crap policies,” she said. That made no sense to her. “What’s more important, a roof over my head or health insurance? I’ll take a roof over my head any day. Why make a person more in debt than they are already. It’s all screwy.” When I told her she would probably qualify for subsidies to help pay for the insurance, she said: “Why hasn’t anyone told me that?”

Russell Mueller, who had recently retired and was working at a model railroad shop in Green Bay, had a lot to say about health reform. He didn’t like it, but he wasn’t going to hold that against Democratic senator Russ Feingold. He had other gripes about him. What bothered him most was that, as he understood it, insurers could not sell across state lines to bring down the price of coverage. When I explained that in a few years states would be able to form compacts and allow such cross-border sales, he insisted that Congress did not deal with the issue. Nor had it dealt with tort reform, in his opinion. “I would have liked to see drastic tort reform,” he said. “When you have a doctor who pays in insurance premiums what I make in ten years, something is wrong.”

Mueller was ambivalent about Social Security. “I love Social Security. Leave it alone,” he said, and then launched into a discussion of privatization. “I would have so much more if they just let me have the money. I’d be happy if they give me an honest return. It’s not an honest return,” he told me. Then he asked if I knew how much garbage had been added to Social Security. I asked what he meant. Turns out he was unhappy people got disability benefits, and that he had heard that an illegitimate child from a brain-dead mother had gotten benefits. “When you change the program politically to appeal to the public and don’t fund it honestly, it’s criminal, and that’s why it is running out of money.”

Medicare was on the minds of older Wisconsinites. In Sturgeon Bay, I met Dan Reynen, who was working as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Reynen, now age sixty-six, had worked most of his life as a commercial fisherman—a hard job, for sure. His health had suffered, and he walked with a limp. He chuckled as he told me he needed a new knee and a new backbone. The second joint in his spine had degenerated.

After leaving the fishing business, Reynen worked in a factory making wire products and then landed the job at Wal-Mart. He took his Social Security benefits when he was sixty-two, and now gets $632 a month. “That’s not a lot,” he said. “That’s why I have to work right now.” He works an eight-hour day and believes he will have to work until he reaches age seventy. The week I talked to Reynen, the Census Bureau reported that seniors were enjoying some of the biggest income gains in decades. That is, at least some of them are.

Reynen worries about Medicare. He knows he needs it to pay for the knee replacement he’s getting soon. “I don’t see it being that good in the future because of the economy and the price of things,” he told me.

He said he voted for Obama and probably would vote for Feingold. But like a lot of other Wisconsinites, he was thinking more about the Packers than politics. “I’m a 100 percent Packer fan,” he told me. Had he ever seen a game at Lambeau Field? “I couldn’t afford to go to the games,” he said. “I watch them on my new TV at home. It’s thirty-seven inches.”

Erica Hofstetter was tending bar at the Sunset Bowl, a bowling alley in Waukesha. She is another Census Bureau statistic. Almost fifty-one million people had no health insurance last year. Hofstetter was one of them. She still has no coverage, but had heard “rumors” about being able to get coverage under her parents’ insurance. She hasn’t looked into that because she heard you had to be twenty-five to get the coverage.

Hofstetter is twenty-three and works part time at the bowling alley, and hopes to return to college soon. She says she wasn’t into school when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus, but now feels ready to return to her studies in English and creative writing.

In high school, she said, she was voted most likely to become president. “I was very political. But as I get older, I get less and less interested in politics,” she told me. Still, Hofstetter had firm opinions. About health reform, she said, “it’s basically government-run health care paid for by our taxes. It would be the government taking over health companies and run by some branch of government.” She watched a lot of the coverage of the reform debate on C-Span and noted that she saw the final debate the night the law was voted on.

We talked a lot about the media. She primarily watches Fox News. “I find them to be the least biased either way, left or right leaning,” she said. “Every time I turn on the news I get upset. More and more people are working against each other for personal gain rather than worker for each other.” Our conversation veered into Social Security territory. Hofstetter did not seem to know about the social compact that underlies the program. “I know they want to privatize it, and I like that. I’d personally prefer to know I had my own money in my account,” she explained. She said she knew that privatization presented some risks like the stock market falling and wiping out her investments, but she didn’t mind that. “I would feel more comfortable knowing it is in my hands.”

For others, neither politics nor health care nor Social Security are high on their list of priorities. For Enisael Aguilera, age twenty-six, getting a job is foremost. Aguilera was born in California and has lived in Waukesha, where his family runs a clothing business. He worked in a foundry as a welder making $16.50 an hour but has been out of work for eleven months, living on food stamps and unemployment checks. He will get only one more, he told me.

Aguilera wasn’t up on politics, although he said he would probably vote for Feingold because Democrats are more helpful to Latinos. That is, if he voted. He wasn’t sure he would. The New York Times reported that Latinos this year are particularly dejected with the political process. I asked him what Latinos need most. “A driver’s license,” he replied. I thought about his answer. Health care, Social Security, and gobs of other issues don’t matter as much as a way to get to work.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.