Wisconsin has jumpstart on health care reforms

    The Milwaukee Public Policy Forum held a forum last week with Karen Timberlake, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and local experts to discuss the impact the national health care reform law will have on the state and the southeastern Wisconsin region.

    “In many cases, Wisconsin is ahead of the curve,” Timberlake said. “We’re ranked first in the country for health care quality and second in access to coverage. There are many elements of the health care reform legislation that will make the rest of the country look more like Wisconsin, but that is not to say there aren’t many areas where we can still improve.”

    While much of the legislation won’t be fully implemented until 2014 or later, planning for those provisions is taking place now. Governor Jim Doyle has created the Office of Health Care Reform to start taking a look at more than 400 provisions that will go into effect between now and 2014, Timberlake said.

    “Whether you agree or disagree with the passing of the legislation, or whether you think it is a perfect piece of legislation or not, there are some significant opportunities available to all states through reform,” she said.

    According to Timberlake, there are billions of dollars available in the form of competitive grants for states as part of the legislation.

    “That’s why we’re putting an emphasis on it now,” Timberlake said. “Regardless of your political opinion on the bill, if we act now, we can set up reform to work how we want it to for the state of Wisconsin. There are significant opportunities available, but the opportunities are very competitive, and so in order to fully realize those opportunities, we cannot push back from the table and let the federal government decide what we are going to do.”

    For Bevan Baker, city of Milwaukee department of public health commissioner, health care reform has brought the issue of health equity to the forefront and has created a greater need to improve health literacy in the region.

    “When disparities exist, we must fix them,” he said. “The driving force behind fixing our system is going to be improving the health literacy of all individuals within the system. We must make sure they understand their choices and how they are going to navigate the world of health care.”

    Improving health care literacy in the region was a focus for all the panelists.

    “Having an informed population is highly important,” said William Petasnick, president and chief executive officer of Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital. “Reform will force greater transparency, and while Wisconsin has always been a leader in providing that kind of information to consumers, only a small percentage of the population uses it. Our biggest challenge as a state and as a nation will be figuring out how to engage and change consumer behavior.”

    In addition to Baker and Petasnick, local experts on the panel included C.C. Henderson, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee Health Services Inc., and Dr. Jeff Bailet, senior vice president of Aurora Health Care.

    Changing consumer behavior also means focusing more on prevention than treatment, Baker said.

    “Prescription drugs have revolutionized the medical arena, but at some point we need to get people to start thinking in a preventative mode so prescription drugs aren’t automatically relied on,” he said. “In order to address cost, we must switch that thinking, back to the days when people didn’t always know there was going to be a cure for them if they got sick.”

    According to Bailet, increasing the amount of people who have coverage will increase the number of patients a doctor must see.

    “There is already a shortage of primary care physicians, and I really don’t see that changing all that much,” Bailet said. “We are going to have to change our model of physician care as well.”

    Due to the increase in the number of patients, Henderson predicts that registered nurses will play an even bigger role in health care in the future.

    Still, another challenge is that reform has to be sustainable, Baker said.

    “It can’t be a hit-and-run issue,” he said. “There has to be a long-term investment in improving health equity and literacy in the region.”

    Timberlake’s power point presentation on what Doyle’s Office of Health Care Reform will be working on over the next six months is available for download here.

    “Some people ask why the Doyle administration is taking such an active approach to reform when a new governor will step in next January,” Timberlake said. “It’s because of those competitive opportunities that will decide how health care reform takes shape here in the state. It’s because of those opportunities and because improving the health and well being of our nation, of our state is everybody’s business and its everybody’s challenge.” 

    Video footage from the forum is available on the Public Policy Forum’s website here.

    Alysha Schertz is a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee.

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