Wisconsin Capitol Dome (copy)

Camera: Canon 5D, tripod.

Disability advocates are applauding a decision by Gov. Scott Walker's administration to abandon proposed changes to the state's long-term care programs.

The Department of Health Services withdrew its request for the Legislature's budget committee to approve the changes on Thursday.

In a letter to the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, DHS secretary Kitty Rhodes said the agency has received "comments, feedback and questions from providers, advocates, legislators and most importantly consumers" on the proposal. 

"Therefore, I am writing to withdraw the concept plan approval request at this time," Rhodes wrote. "I remain committed to the goal  of an integrated outcome-based care model that coordinates all of an individual's care needs."

The agency had sought changes to Family Care, a Medicaid program that provides long-term care outside nursing homes to more than 40,000 elderly and disabled people in Wisconsin, and to IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct), a program that facilitates self-directed long-term care for about 12,000 participants.

The changes were approved as part of the governor's budget last year, but required the Joint Finance Committee to sign off on specifics. 

Under the proposal, the state would contract with private insurance companies to replace the managed care organizations, or MCOs, that currently oversee long-term care. Long-term care recipients would receive both long-term and acute care from integrated health agencies, or IHAs.

Supporters of the changes argued they could help make the programs more sustainable by saving money and making operations more efficient. But program users were concerned they would lose flexibility and quality of care.

Beth Swedeen, executive director of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, said the disability community wants to keep working with the Legislature on ways to improve the Family Care and IRIS programs.

"Long-term care participants realize that containing costs while building on quality care are both essential to the future of Family Care and IRIS," Swedeen said. "No group is more invested in making meaningful changes and keeping costs down while improving quality than the people who use the programs."

Lawmakers reacted to the news on Friday along party lines. Democrats praise the decision to withdraw the proposal, while Republicans viewed it as a missed opportunity.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, accused people of "playing politics with the future care of our most vulnerable citizens."

"These reforms are about long-term sustainability. Everyone involved wants a maintainable program that provides quality care that’s not only cost-effective, but also addresses individuals’ needs," Vos said. "Reform is still necessary. Changes will need to occur at some point to continue these services well into the future. I look forward to seeing additional reform plans from the agency."

Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said legislators are missing "an important opportunity to implement reform and bolster sustainability for health care for Wisconsin’s elderly and disabled."

Democrats accused the governor and GOP lawmakers of putting the elderly and disabled through panic for nothing and trying to fix something that wasn't broken.

"While I feel a sense of relief for the nearly 60,000 Wisconsinites whose lives hung in the balance during these deliberations, this frankly is a moment in time that never should have happened," said Joint Finance member Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. "For the last year and a half, participants in our long-term care programs and advocates from the long-term care community have been crystal clear about their opposition to this overhaul, yet Governor Walker and legislative Republicans arrogantly pressed on."

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he hopes the decision is an indication proponents of the plan are rethinking it and "not just an election-year gimmick."

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.