Wisconsin and the ACA’s Medicaid expansion

WI has not implemented ACA Medicaid expansion, but BadgerCare Medicaid covers everyone under the poverty level

No ACA Medicaid expansion, but no coverage gap either

Federal
poverty level
calculator

What state do you live in?

0.0%

of Federal Poverty Level

Although Wisconsin has not expanded Medicaid under the guidelines laid out in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the state’s BadgerCare Medicaid program does cover all legally present residents with incomes under the poverty level. Wisconsin is the only non-Medicaid-expansion state that does not have a coverage gap; all low-income residents either have access to Medicaid or subsidies to help them purchase private coverage in the exchange.

As of May 2020, there were 175,893 non-disabled adults without minor children who had coverage under BadgerCare. This was an increase of nearly 23,000 from March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, highlighting the importance of Medicaid in covering people who lost their health coverage and their incomes amid the pandemic.

Wisconsin’s former Governor Scott Walker, who was opposed to the ACA, opted not to accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion under the ACA, in part because he was concerned that the federal government would not keep its promise to continue to pay at least 90 percent of the cost. But because Wisconsin has not expanded Medicaid, the state is only receiving its regular federal match rate of 58.5 percent, and the state is paying the rest (the federal matching rate has been temporarily increased by federal legislation, in order to address the COVID-19 pandemic). If the state were to expand Medicaid to cover adults earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level, the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost of covering able-bodied, childless adults.

A 2020 analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that 120,000 people would gain access to Medicaid if the state were to accept federal funding to fully expand coverage, and that the state’s uninsured rate would drop by 16 percent. And because Wisconsin is currently covering adults with income up to the poverty level under the state’s regular state/federal funding split, Wisconsin is the only non-expansion state that would see a direct drop in state spending by expanding Medicaid (since the federal government would start to pay 90 percent of the cost of covering the entire Medicaid expansion population, including non-disabled adults with income under the poverty level who are already covered under the state’s non-expansion approach).

Wisconsin’s approach means that the state has essentially expanded Medicaid using their own funds, which no other state has done. Governor Tony Evers, who took office in early 2019, wants to expand Medicaid but lawmakers have thus far rejected that option.

BadgerCare Reform Demonstration (community engagement, premiums, health risk assessment) has been suspended/delayed due to COVID-19

In June 2017, Wisconsin submitted a proposed 1115 waiver to CMS, detailing reforms that the state wanted to make to its existing Medicaid program for childless adults ages 19-64. The proposed changes were called for under the terms of the 2015-2017 budget bill (Act 55) that the state enacted. CMS approved the waiver in October 2018, but with some modifications.

The state’s reforms for childless adult BadgerCare Plus enrollees were slated to take effect in 2020. But in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin enacted Assembly Bill 1038 (Act 185) in April 2020, implementing a wide range of measures. Section 105 of the legislation allowed the state to suspend or delay the reforms called for the BadgerCare Reform Demonstration. This enabled Wisconsin to comply with federal requirements for the state to receive the additional federal Medicaid funding that’s being provided to states in order to address the pandemic (in order to receive the funding, states cannot impose new premiums after January 1, 2020, and cannot disenroll people from Medicaid during the COVID-19 emergency; new premiums and a work requirement would run counter to those rules).

So for the time being, as of mid-2020, the BadgerCare Reform Demonstration Project has not been implemented. But here’s a look at what it calls for, if and when the COVID-19 situation is under control and the state is able to implement the changes:

The waiver approval extends BadgerCare through the end of 2023, and although it allows the state to implement a work requirement for enrollees aged 19 to 49, CMS did not approve the state’s proposal to require drug testing as a condition of eligibility for Medicaid. Instead, Wisconsin revised their proposal to include completion of a health risk assessment as a condition of eligibility. People can be referred for substance abuse treatment based on their health risk assessments, but would not lose their Medicaid eligibility for Medicaid.

The state has an FAQ page about the newly-approved waiver extension and amendment. Wisconsin’s approved BadgerCare changes include:

  • A Medicaid premium of $8 per month for childless adults with household income between 51 and 100 percent of the poverty level (for a single individual, that’s income between $6,507 and $12,760 in 2020). There is an option for enrollees to reduce this premium by half if they either don’t engage in behaviors that create a health risk, or if they do but also attest to managing the behavior to improve their health. Healthy behaviors include things like wearing a seat belt, avoiding tobacco products, and maintaining a healthy weight. The premium requirements have been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to allow the state to receive additional federal Medicaid funding.
  • An $8 copay for non-emergency use of the emergency department.
  • Completion of a health and wellness questionnaire as a condition of eligibility. This replaced the originally proposed drug screening/testing as a condition of eligibility. Although enrollees whose questionnaire answers indicate a need for drug treatment can be referred to treatment options, they will not lose their eligibility for coverage. The health assessment program has also been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Increased coverage for substance abuse treatment, including full residential treatment as an option for all BadgerCare members.
  • Limiting BadgerCare eligibility to 48 months for non-disabled, non-pregnant enrollees age 19 to 49. After a person reaches a total of 48 months of coverage, BadgerCare eligibility will cease for six months. However, any month during which a BadgerCare enrollee is working or engaged in work training for at least 80 hours would not count towards the 48-month limit. Coverage in Wisconsin for childless, non-disabled adults is limited to those with income under the poverty level ($12,760 for a single adult in 2020), so avoiding the lifetime benefit cap while continuing to receive benefits would involve working enough to satisfy the 80-hour-per-month requirement, while not earning more than $12,760 during the year (the poverty level is adjusted slightly higher each year). But implementation of the work requirement has been delayed as a result of COVID-19; the program is not in effect as of mid-2020.

BadgerCare Plus — past and present

Prior to 2014, BadgerCare Medicaid had much more generous eligibility guidelines than programs in most other states. It was still limited to children, pregnant women, and parents with dependent children, but it covered them with incomes up to 200 percent of poverty level (300% for children and pregnant women).

Medicaid expansion under the ACA would have extended Medicaid coverage to everyone — including adults without dependent children — with incomes up to 138% of poverty. But the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states could not be penalized if they didn’t expand their programs, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker saw an opportunity to revamp the state’s Medicaid program, providing access to coverage for everyone while relying as much as possible on private coverage.

ACA subsidies to purchase private plans in the exchange are only available to people with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of poverty level. So Governor Walker decided to make BadgerCare available to everyone with incomes up to 100 percent of poverty level (pregnant women and children are still eligible with household incomes up to 300% of poverty level). This meant that about 83,000 adults without dependent children became newly eligible for BadgerCare on April 1, 2014.

But in trade, Walker’s plan called for switching to private coverage through the exchange for about 72,000 residents with incomes between 100 percent and 200 percent of poverty level.  This group was comprised almost entirely of parents with dependent children, and they were eligible for BadgerCare Plus under the old rules. Although this group is now eligible for significant subsidies in the exchange, there are concerns among consumer advocates that the people who were previously insured through BadgerCare Plus might not have been able to afford private coverage in the exchange (including the out-of-pocket costs for claims), even with subsidies.

For the people who lost eligibility for BadgerCare, the exchange provided a special enrollment period that ran through the end of June 2014. But by September 2014, the state estimated that there were still 28,500 former BadgerCare members who had not enrolled in coverage through the exchange. As a result, a new special enrollment period was enacted, running from September 4 to November 2, 2014. Ultimately, the state estimated that less than 60 percent of the people who lost access to BadgerCare were able to transition to a private plan in Wisconsin’s exchange.

An expensive choice

By not accepting federal funding to expand Medicaid under the ACA, Wisconsin has missed out on billions in federal funding since the beginning of 2014. If the state had accepted Medicaid expansion to cover adults with income up to 138 percent of the poverty level, the federal government would have paid 100 percent of the cost through the end of 2016, and would be paying 90 percent of the cost in 2020 and beyond. But because Wisconsin cuts off Medicaid eligibility at 100 percent of the poverty level, they aren’t eligible for the enhanced federal match provided by the ACA. Under the Obama administration, some states proposed expanding Medicaid to 100 percent of the poverty level with full federal funding, but HHS did not agree to that provision, insisting that in order to receive ACA Medicaid expansion funding, states had to expand coverage all the way to 138 percent of the poverty level (133 percent, with a built-in 5 percent income disregard).

And the Trump administration has maintained this position, most recently with their rejection of Utah’s proposal for full Medicaid expansion funding with a partial expansion approach similar to Wisconsin’s (Utah ultimately expanded its Medicaid program fully, in order to get the enhanced federal funding).

Because Wisconsin has taken a unique approach to partially expanding Medicaid, they have been paying more in state funds than they would if they had expanded Medicaid as called for in the ACA. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Wisconsin’s direct costs for Medicaid would drop by nearly 7 percent if the state expanded Medicaid, despite the fact that more people would be covered.

Who is eligible?

BadgerCare Medicaid is available for the following legally-present Wisconsin residents

  • Pregnant women with household income up to 300 percent of poverty.
  • Children 19 and under with household income up to 300 percent of poverty.
  • Adults with household income up to 100 percent of poverty.

How do I enroll?

  • You can enroll online at HealthCare.gov or the BadgerCare website.
  • You can enroll by phone at 1-800-318-2596.
  • You can also enroll in person or by phone at a local Wisconsin Income Maintenance Agency (this map shows the agency for each region – you can click on your region and it will show you the address and phone number of your local office).
  • You can print a paper application and take it to your local Income Maintenance Agency or submit it by mail (the address to use depends on whether you live in Milwaukee County or not).

Enrollment numbers

As of early 2020, there were 1,038,188 people enrolled in Wisconsin’s Medicaid/CHIP program, which was a 5 percent increase since the end of 2013, and virtually unchanged from late 2016. States that have expanded Medicaid have seen substantial increases in their Medicaid enrollment. Although Wisconsin did allow childless adults with income up to the poverty level to enroll starting in 2014, they cut eligibility for parents with dependent children whose income was between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty, offsetting much of the enrollment gains.

9.1 percent of Wisconsin residents were uninsured in 2013, and that fell to just 5.3 percent by 2016, according to U.S. Census data. But by 2017, it had crept slightly higher, to 5.4 percent, and it grew again slightly in 2018, when 5.5 percent of the state’s population was uninsured. All of those numbers are lower than the national average; nationwide, the uninsured rate fell from 14.5 percent to 8.6 percent in 2016, and increased slightly to 8.7 percent in 2017 and 8.9 percent in 2018.

Although Wisconsin has not expanded Medicaid under the ACA, the BadgerCare Medicaid program has much more generous eligibility rules than most non-expansion state programs. So there is no coverage gap, and relatively affordable health insurance is universally available in Wisconsin.


Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

Find affordable health plans

Since 2008, we’ve helped more than 16 million people.

(Step 1 of 2)

How to apply in WI

Online at access.wisconsin.gov or healthcare.gov; or by phone, in person or with a paper application at local Income Maintenance Agencies.

Eligibility: The aged, blind, and disabled.  Also, children and pregnant women with incomes up to 300% of poverty; other adults with incomes up to 100% of poverty.

Wisconsin section