- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to require enrollees in the popular SeniorCare prescription drug program to first sign up for Medicare Part D coverage is dead, the Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee said Thursday.

Walker’s idea ran into bipartisan opposition in the Legislature, and the AARP and other groups representing senior citizens strongly disapproved of it. They feared the changes would increase costs for prescription drugs making it difficult for cash-strapped older people to make ends meet.

It marks the second time in five years that Walker’s proposed changes to the program for those over age 65 appear to be going nowhere.

Walker, who is expected to run for president, was in Arizona meeting with Republican lawmakers there on Thursday. His spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said Walker is willing to work with the Legislature and other stakeholders to ensure seniors “have affordable access to the prescription drugs they need while effectively utilizing both state and federal resources.”

Just because there isn’t support in the Legislature for what Walker proposed, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes made to SeniorCare, Rep. John Nygren, the Republican co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, told The Associated Press.

“I wouldn’t say changes are off the table,” Nygren, of Marinette, said of SeniorCare. But he said the current structure of the program will be maintained. SeniorCare members whose annual income is less than $18,832 pay $30 per year, as well as co-pays of $5 for generic drugs and $15 for brand name drugs. Costs increase along with a person’s income.

“Maintaining a low cost is definitely a goal,” Nygren said.

Supporters say the state program is less expensive and easier to enroll in and to understand than Medicare Part D. Because SeniorCare is an alternative to Medicare Part D, under Walker’s proposal thousands of seniors not yet enrolled in the federal program would have had to switch and likely would have faced higher fees.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos remains open to making changes affecting new enrollees but not the roughly 85,000 people already in the program, said his spokeswoman Kit Beyer.

Democratic Rep. Andy Jorgensen, of Milton, has led the charge to protect SeniorCare. He said Nygren’s statements Thursday show that Republicans are “feeling the public pressure” to maintain the program unchanged.

“My hope is that (Nygren) and other Republican leaders will work with Democrats to truly save the program, keeping it wholly intact without significant fee increases for the foreseeable future,” Jorgensen said in a statement. “Anything short of leaving SeniorCare alone is not saving SeniorCare.”

Walker’s proposal was estimated to save the state $15 million over two years.

The Joint Finance Committee was holding its fourth and final public hearing on the budget Thursday and plans to begin taking votes on altering Walker’s two-year budget proposal early in April.

From there the budget has to be approved by both the Senate and Assembly, which are controlled by Republicans, before being sent to Walker for his signature.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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