Remember Healthy Wisconsin?

That was the name of the $15 billion universal health care plan state Democrats hastily cooked up during the state budget process last year. It passed the state Senate on a party line vote before fizzling in the Assembly and getting tossed out in conference committee.

After its legislative demise, many state Democrats maintained hope for its passage at some point in the future. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin specifically enunciated its continued support for the program in its official party platform approved in June: “[W]e support broader coverage and increased funding for the current health care programs on local, state and national levels, including BadgerCare, Medicaid and Healthy Wisconsin.”

Now the halcyon days for Healthy Wisconsin are over. Indeed, many of its former backers can’t seem to renounce their support quick enough, and they are resorting to bizarre tactics to do so.

Healthy Wisconsin was not an exercise in diligent lawmaking. Funded through a payroll tax, the plan essentially guaranteed health care coverage to all Wisconsinites under the age of 65, provided individuals maintained their permanent residences in the state for at least 12 months while also having a “substantial presence in the state.” (These requirements are of dubious constitutionality, since they treat people new to the state differently than longtime residents.)

In any case, the residency and time requirements were waived under the plan if a person is gainfully employed in the state. So as long as a person has a job in Wisconsin, he or she would immediately be entitled to the plan’s coverage — no matter if the person lives in Milwaukee, Minneapolis or Marrakesh.

The Wisconsin Legislative Council confirmed that illegal immigrants would qualify for coverage in a July 2007 memo, specifying the language of “the Healthy Wisconsin Plan does not distinguish between persons who are in the country legally and those persons who are in the country illegally.” Legislative Council further noted the statute did not deny coverage to individuals even if they or their employers failed to pay the assessment that would fund the program.

You can imagine some people would not consider this a wise allocation of taxpayer money, what with the state facing a $3 billion budget deficit and all. And several organizations have run television ads drawing attention to various Democratic legislative candidates for their support of the health care boondoggle.

In response, the Democratic Party has adopted the strategy of denying that its candidates ever supported the heretofore beloved Healthy Wisconsin. First it sent letters to local television networks, demanding they not run the ads critical of state Rep. Jim Soletski, Rep. Jeff Smith and Assembly candidate Kristen Dexter.

When that strategy wasn’t successful, the Democratic Party responded Monday by filing a complaint with the state’s Government Accountability Board, the body that oversees state elections. The complaint alleges two interest groups, the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership and the Coalition for America’s Families, made false representations claiming the aforementioned candidates “supported” Healthy Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, facts get in the way of the complaint. Dexter told the Wisconsin Eye network this year Healthy Wisconsin was a “very well put together plan.” Smith also publicly supported the proposal, as the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram has reported. Soletski has said the plan would be a good place to start on health care reform.

Perhaps one can construe these statements as indicating something less than full support for every component of Healthy Wisconsin. But it certainly can’t be said the ads amount to legally false representations.

Moreover, the irony of the Democratic Party’s course of action is splendid. The party is encouraging the state to take legal action to protect the reputations of its candidates — even though the only thing the candidates stand accused of is supporting the party’s official policy platform!

The case of another Democratic Assembly candidate, Trish O’Neil, is equally amusing. On her website, O’Neil adamantly denies support for the Healthy Wisconsin plan. Yet an ad run on her behalf by the Wisconsin Education Association Council criticizes Assembly Republicans for, among other things, striking down Healthy Wisconsin! O’Neil didn’t coordinate the ad with WEAC (she can’t by law), but you’d think she might defend Assembly Republicans for killing legislation she was supposedly so opposed to.

There are legitimate arguments that universal health care is needed to protect individuals failed by the private market. There are also legitimate arguments that it would lead to restrictive rationing and a decrease in patient freedom.

Regardless of merits, if health care reform is to occur, it needs to happen on the federal level. It certainly shouldn’t happen at the state level with hackneyed legislation turning Wisconsin into the nation’s official health care haven. Certain candidates are finding that out a little late.

Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.