As we enter our second year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin continues to grapple with how to operationalize its efforts. Some recent developments are below:
- On March 30th, the federal Retail Pharmacy Program was expanded to additional locations, enabling nearly 600 participating pharmacy locations to offer COVID-19 vaccinations.
- On March 31st, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the COVID-19 emergency order, which effectively ended the statewide mask mandate. The court ruled that Governor Tony Evers exceeded his authority to impose and extend multiple COVID-19 emergency orders without legislative approval as outlined in state law. Local Wisconsin jurisdictions may still have local mask mandates. An indoor mask mandate is still in place under Public Health Order #15 for Madison and Dane County and is effective until May 5th.
- On April 5th, Wisconsin opened up vaccination eligibility to everyone ages 16 and older.
- On April 20th, Governor Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) announced the state has received more than $175 million in federal funding to develop a program to support school-based COVID-19 testing for teachers, staff, and students.
- On April 22nd, DHS began using VaccineFinder to help people more easily locate available vaccine providers who are open to the public. This tool allows users to search for vaccine providers in their area, validate dose availability and filter by vaccine brand (important especially for 16- and 17-year-olds, as they can only receive Pfizer).
Legislature and COVID response / economic recovery: With billions of dollars allocated to Wisconsin from the federal government, legislative debate has centered around how Wisconsin should spend these funds. At top of mind for legislators is tax relief, which is presently an improper purpose for use of these federal funds. The Assembly and Senate passed a resolution ordering the Attorney General to join a lawsuit to enable states to use COVID dollars for tax relief. Despite this request, the Attorney General does not plan to join the lawsuit. Absence a change in federal law, federal funds cannot be used for property tax relief.
Against that backdrop, the Legislature advanced a package of 11 bills to spend much of the $3.2 billion Wisconsin is getting under the American Rescue Plan. This package included a $1.1 billion property tax cut among other provisions to pay down the state debt and rebuild and modernize state infrastructure. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reviewed that package and indicated that the purpose of some of these bills would likely violate federal guidance. Governor Evers vetoed this package last week and recently indicated he intends to release “soon” a fuller accounting of his plans to spend the $3.2 billion in federal stimulus funds.
Budget: Last night, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee held the last of its public hearings on the 2021-2023 biennial state budget. This last public hearing was held virtually and was limited to 200 slots that were available through a registration process. In addition to the public meetings, the committee is also holding agency briefings to inform its budget proposal to be considered by the full legislature. The goal is to get a final budget signed by July 1st, either by the Governor or through a two-thirds vote overriding a veto.
Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) advocacy update: The WHA held its 2021 Virtual Advocacy Day on April 14th. Nearly 1,000 hospital and health system leaders, providers, volunteers, clinical and non-clinical staff and trustees attended, followed by meetings with state elected leaders to discuss key hospital priorities. Among the legislative priorities is support of the Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) program. This program impacts both UnityPoint Health – Meriter and University of Wisconsin (UW) Health. Overall, WHA is advocating for a permanent reauthorization of the $40 million General Purpose Revenue Medicaid DSH increase from last year. UnityPoint Health – Meriter CEO Sue Erickson co-signed a letter along with more than 100 Wisconsin’s hospital leaders to urge the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to maintain the current DSH funding level.
For more information on State of Wisconsin advocacy, legislative, policy and regulatory issues of impact to UnityPoint Health, please contact Cathy Simmons, executive director of government & external affairs for UnityPoint Health.