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MEDICAID | EMERGENCY ENDS MAY 11
1.6 million in Wisconsin on Medicaid need to renew for first time since COVID-19 began
David Wahlberg | Wisconsin State Journal
UW-Madison nursing student Tanner Kattre, left, prepares a flu
shot with nurse Sarah Kruger in 2020.
STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES
More than 1.6 million Wisconsin residents on BadgerCare Plus or other types of Medicaid will need to renew their coverage in the coming months to see if they still qualify, a process put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Households will get letters this month or next month telling them when they will need to renew, which will happen in a staggered process between June of this year and May 2024. Additional materials will arrive 45 days before each household’s renewal date to begin the process.
When the pandemic started in early 2020, federal officials let people stay on Medicaid, the state-federal program for people with low incomes, even if their incomes rose or they otherwise became ineligible.
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Many of the people losing coverage should be able to get insurance through their jobs, on the federal marketplace or by aging into Medicare, experts say. But the state’s estimated ranks of about 248,000 uninsured people is expected to grow to nearly 298,000, the Urban League report said.
“We intend to do everything that we can to make sure that we are communicating with our members so that they may stay enrolled in programs they are eligible for,” Jamie Kuhn, Wisconsin’s Medicaid director, said Thursday.
About 90,000 people will need to reapply for Medicaid by the end of May, and then 60,000 to 75,000 households will need to renew each month over the 12-month period, state officials said.
Electronic versions of the letters going out in the coming weeks are also available at access.wi.gov, where the renewal process can be performed. Health officials urged people to make sure the state has their current mailing address, email address and phone number.
The move comes after 11 orthopedic surgeons who resigned from SSM Health last year opened a competing practice in Madison this week.
Navigators will contact people on Medicaid to see if they need help renewing the coverage or finding other insurance, officials said. People can also visit WisCovered.com for help.
“We want the public to know that Wisconsin has a free resource ready to help with your health insurance questions and complications,” said Allison Espeseth, director of Covering Wisconsin, said in a statement. “Navigators — and other enrollment assisters around the state — are specially trained to guide you through your coverage options and next steps.”
OPEN RECORDS | MADISON SCHOOLS
'It's exhausting': Frustration grows over Madison School District's open records delays
Patanne Coffey is still waiting to see if she'll get records
from the Madison School District relating to the discovery of
hidden cameras in a room that disabled students, including her
daughter Ariannea, used often to change at East High School.
JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
When Patanne Coffey first got the call in 2021 that a hidden camera had been discovered in a room that disabled students, including her daughter Ariannea, used often to change at East High School, she cried.
As a mother, she wanted to know more. She felt disgusted, betrayed and hurt.
"I didn't really know what happened and wasn't given really any information right at the time except for there was a camera found in the changing room," Coffey said.
The cameras had been placed inside hollowed-out smoke detectors in an attempt to catch a janitor sleeping on the job. The cameras were placed in a coaches' office and in a room where students with disabilities are often changed. Madison police found no crime had been committed, and the district has hired a law firm to investigate the matter internally.
To find those, Coffey and another parent, with the help of a lawyer, filed an open records request in March 2021 with the Madison School District, asking for the video footage and a wide range of other records relating to the discovery of the cameras.
State law requires public entities, like city governments, politicians and school districts, to release public records when requested "as soon as practicable and without delay." There is no set timeframe, but the Wisconsin Department of Justice says that 10 working days is generally a "reasonable" amount of time for responding to simple requests, though more complex requests may take longer.
The school district didn't respond to Coffey's request for more than three months. In July 2021, the district said it couldn't fulfill the request because the district didn't have some of the records and that attorney-client privilege protected the rest.
The parents have now filed a lawsuit against the school district demanding the records be released, which is on pause while a separate, civil rights lawsuit regarding the cameras is sorted out in federal court.
"I think the whole situation is absolutely disgusting," Coffey said. "I think the public has a right to know the true facts about what happened."
The local teachers union sued the district in 2022 after waiting more than six months for information on staff benefits. And the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued the district in January after waiting nearly a year for a copy of a classroom policy. WILL had sued the district in 2022, too, and the case was dismissed after the district eventually handed over the records requested, according to WILL communications director Pat Garrett.
The district has largely blamed the delays on staffing shortages, but spokesperson Tim LeMonds said there also has been an increase in records requests in recent years, adding to the backlog.
LeMonds said the district "takes public record requests very seriously, and we continue to prioritize our recruitment efforts to add the appropriate staff to improve our response times."
The district has "proven itself to be a notably bad actor when it comes to open government," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
"The district seems to think that 'we're busy with other stuff' is an acceptable reason for not meeting its statutory obligations under the public records law," Lueders said. "It also seems to think that it is okay to be lousy at this essential function if the district is short-staffed or has an open position."
What do open records tell us?
"This is a central issue," Madison School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen said. "If the community wants true transparency from their leaders, they need to demand it. Not being able to see the records means that information will be kept from them. And that's what's happening. That's what's being shown, and that is incredibly, incredibly worrisome."
"We need to follow the law and we're not," Vander Meulen said.
Recent open records requests have helped shine a light on the $11 million buyout of former Badgers football head coach Paul Chryst last fall, the truth about vacancies in the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation, and $76,000 the state spent to defend a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources policy board member who refused to step down.
Currently, the State Journal has at least six open records requests still pending with the Madison School District.
"The drag out of trying to get some of this information is exhausting," said Martha Siravo, co-founder of Madtown Mommas and Disability Advocates, a group of moms advocating for disabled students. She has personal experience with delayed records requests with the district, and has helped other parents through the process, too.
"I honestly think it's a strategy of who has more patience," Siravo said, like a game of chicken between how long the district can drag its feet and how long a parent can hold out before giving up. "That's exhausting."
Vander Meulen herself has dealt with delays when asking for records. It took the district four months to respond to a request she filed in 2021, and she didn't get everything she asked for in the response, either.
"If I can't even get the records, and I'm an attorney and a board member, how is the general citizen going to get there?" she said.
Follow along as State Journal cartoonist Phil Hands draws a cartoon about the public's right to open records
What is going on?
LeMonds said the district began to see an uptick in open records requests during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the last three years there have been between 100-200 requests a year. This year so far, he said, there have been more than 100 requests, and just over half have been resolved.
In speaking to other similar districts, LeMonds said, Madison isn't alone in the uptick. The number of complex requests has also gone up, which adds to the delays.
Historically, the district's legal department has responded to and fulfilled records requests, LeMonds said. But the district is close to filling a new position that would specifically handle records requests.
It's been a difficult role to fill, though. The district previously offered the position to an applicant, but that person declined. LeMonds said media attention on the vacant position and the district's high volume of requests has been an "obstacle" in recruitment.
As of Thursday, the job was no longer posted on the district's website, but it previously listed the job as a public records clerk who would split duties between handling public records and acting as an administrative clerk.
Until the position is filled, the legal department continues to split the responsibility of handling requests, based on capacity and the complexity of the request.
The district tries to respond to requests in the order they're received, LeMonds said, but some are more complex and require clarification before they can be completed.
"It is important to note, the number of public record requests does not reflect the complexity and nature of a request nor the time and staff resources it takes to fulfill them," LeMonds said. "One request may take a couple hours of staff time to locate, prepare and deliver. Others could involve multiple staff members at different building locations and take days of staff time to fulfill."
In her case, Coffey said the information is important to prevent future mistakes.
"It's important for me and the public to have it so that people can learn and try to maybe move forward and prevent it from happening again," she said.
Patanne Coffey and another parent, with the help of a lawyer,
filed an open records request in March 2021 with the Madison School
District, asking for the video footage and a wide range of other
records relating to the discovery of the cameras.
JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
What can be done?
Filling the open records staff position is one answer, but officials think the district can do even more.
Vander Meulen wants a policy to be crafted that clearly defines what a reasonable amount of time is to fulfill a records request.
"Without a policy, the word 'reasonable' means 'litigate,'" she said.
She said she's not sure the board would approve a policy like that right now, though, because of other issues they're juggling, including finding a new superintendent, a budget crisis and staffing shortages.
Still, tasking a specific employee with handling the requests is critical.
"They need to have an actual person in that role, and then it has to be a supported role by other staff members in order to fulfill these requests and to keep the rest of Madison moving," Siravo said.
Regardless, Coffey just wants the process to be faster.
Waiting for the information is stressful and mentally draining, she said, especially when you're searching for answers about whether your daughter was unknowingly filmed while changing her clothes. But other information that may be less serious should be easy to obtain as well, she said.
"Even though our case is much more serious, I think every open records request should not be as hard as it is," Coffey said.
Waiting on answers
Not getting the records Coffey requested "put everything on a hold" for her family.
"The what if or what did really happen? Who really did watch (the videos)? Am I going to see somebody making fun of it on a TikTok, or where are they? What happened? Who did it? Why?" she said.
"I just kind of want answers that may never be answered," she said.
Patanne Coffey and daughter Ariannea share a walk in their
neighborhood. "It's important for me and the public
to have (this information) so that people can learn and try to
maybe move forward and prevent it from happening again,"
Patanne Coffey says.
JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Despite the regular delays and hurdles, Siravo said the public should keep filing records requests with the district, and to keep pushing for transparency.
"I still encourage the public, even though this is an assumed frustration that people take on when they go to ask for an open records request," she said. "But don't think that you can't do it, or that you should not do it just because of the amount of time that it's probably going to take."
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Wisconsin Court of Appeals rules in favor of State Journal, other outlets, in open records case
Mitchell Schmidt | Wisconsin State Journal
The state Assembly violated Wisconsin public records law when it initially denied records requests from several news outlets seeking copies of a sexual harassment complaint filed against a former state lawmaker, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled Thursday.
The case relates to open records requests filed in 2019 by the Wisconsin State Journal, The Associated Press, The Capital Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and open records advocate Jonathan Anderson seeking copies of a complaint a legislative aide filed against then-state Rep. Staush Gruszynski, D-Green Bay.
Former Assembly Chief Clerk Pat Fuller, who had denied a December 2019 open records request, later released redacted copies of the complaint to the outlets’ attorneys in August 2020, a day after Gruszynski lost his seat in a primary and after the legislative aide provided more details to The Capital Times about the incident.
But those records were heavily redacted, and the outlets’ attorneys challenged those redactions and additionally called on the court to rule on the legality of Fuller’s initial denial.
The 4th District Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld a Dane County Circuit Court judge’s July 2021 ruling that the state Assembly violated open records laws in its initial refusal and then eight-month delay in releasing copies of the sexual harassment records involving Gruszynski.
Attorneys Christa Westerberg and Tom Kamenick, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said in a joint statement Thursday they were pleased with the appeals court’s ruling.
“The court agreed with us that the Assembly’s initial denial of the records requests and nearly all of the challenged redactions were unlawful,” the lawyers said. “The court also reaffirmed that judges have the power to rule on whether an initial delay or denial was illegal, even if the custodian turns over records after the lawsuit is filed.”
Under Wisconsin law, records custodians apply a balancing test when determining how to respond to records requests, a process that weighs public interest and privacy. According to court records, a legislative human resources officer said the office treats employee internal complaints as confidentially as possible and respecting the individual’s privacy outweighed public interest.
The appeals court ruled that the Assembly misapplied the balancing test and violated open records law by redacting portions of the records when they were ultimately released, and that the media outlets were entitled to attorneys’ fees.
A judge had ruled the Assembly violated open records laws in delaying the release of sexual harassment records involving former Rep. Staush Gr…
“The Assembly violated the public records law when it initially denied outright the records requests because its purported justifications did not sufficiently demonstrate that the public interest in non-release outweighed the public interest in release,” according to court documents.
Records provided to media organizations last August included a complaint from a staffer who said Gruszynski tried to coax her into having sex with him in 2019.
The complaint filed with the Legislature’s human resources office in November 2021 stated that the staffer and her friends had met Gruszynski at the Malt House, a Madison bar, on Oct. 30, and that she knew he had been drinking and arrived to help him sober up.
At the bar he told her that he’d had his eye on her for years and he knew she felt the same way about him and asked her to have sex with him. She refused, telling him that he was married and that sex between a legislator and an aide would be inappropriate, and left the bar.
In a statement at the time, Gruszynski said the documents confirmed he was “black out drunk,” and apologized and said he felt remorse.
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CITY OF MADISON
Madison dismisses 282 old pot tickets, in line with new decriminalization ordinance
Chris Rickert | Wisconsin State Journal
In keeping with a 2020 ordinance change that further legalized small amounts of marijuana, Madison’s municipal court on Wednesday retroactively dismissed 282 city tickets for pot possession and the city will begin refunding fines to those who’d paid them.
All the tickets had been issued between Feb. 1, 2019, and Dec. 4, 2020, under an old city ordinance that generally made possession in public subject to a $50 fine, plus court costs, bringing the final bill up to $124, according to court administrator Christie Zamber.
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The time frame was chosen because it corresponds to when the municipal court put in place a new information management system — allowing city officials to more easily locate the tickets — and when the new ordinance went into effect.
With some exceptions, the new ordinance allows people 18 years old and older to have up to an ounce of marijuana or marijuana-derived products on public property or on private property, such as an apartment, if the property owner is OK with it. Pot remains illegal under state and federal law, but the Dane County District Attorney’s office and Madison police have indicated they are not interested in bringing charges against adults for recreational marijuana use.
Municipal tickets cannot be expunged, and the new ordinance did not contain a provision for retroactively dismissing tickets issued under the old ordinance. But the lead author of the new ordinance, Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, had made clear that if it passed, he was interested in giving people convicted under the old ordinance some relief.
Having a small amount of cannabis on the city bus is fine but smoking it in the park is not.
“The ordinance change goes a long way to promote equity in the city by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis,” Verveer said. “I applaud the efforts of the Municipal Court and city attorney’s office to provide some retroactive relief to the individuals whose lives have been negatively impacted by a conviction for possessing small amounts of cannabis.”
Verveer and others also introduced a nonbinding resolution before the City Council this month in support of dismissing the tickets “to promote equity and justice consistent with the spirit of the 2020 ordinance change.” Advocates have long pointed to data showing that Black people are disproportionately arrested for marijuana violations.
The tickets dismissed Wednesday represent about $29,000 in city ticket revenue, although about $18,000 of that total had not been paid by 150 of the people ticketed. Zamber said the court is beginning to go through the dismissed tickets now and hopes to issue refunds in the coming months. There won’t be any other notice to the ticketed that their tickets were tossed, she said.
People ticketed under the old ordinance who would also like to have their tickets dismissed and refunded can appeal directly to the Madison Municipal Court, City Attorney Mike Haas said.
Madison first enacted an ordinance in 1977 that allowed residents to consume or possess cannabis in private residences but subjected those using it in public without a prescription to a fine of up to $100.
Under the new ordinance, it’s still a violation for those under 18 to have cannabis, to have more than an ounce of it, to use any amount on a school bus or near schools, or to have it in a running vehicle. But the penalty for all but underage use is capped at a dollar, while youths caught with marijuana are only required to make an appearance in court.
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