MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has not expanded the state's popular SeniorCare program to include coverage for vaccines, despite being required under a bipartisan law and as flu season begins while the coronavirus ravages the state.
Republican lawmakers are demanding an explanation from Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm, calling the delay an "unnecessary roadblock for seniors looking to protect themselves from infectious diseases."
Once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, it should also be covered under the expansion that lawmakers approved in April.
SeniorCare is a state prescription drug assistance program for people over age 65 who make up to $30,625 a year. There are about 95,000 people in the program. The state health department has said it needs to formally amend the program to access federal money to pay for the vaccinations, moves that are still in the works.
State Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, Republican co-chairs of the Legislature's budget committee, wrote to Palm on Friday asking her to implement the expansion immediately.
"The delay in implementation is concerning and we have heard from constituents that it has blocked efforts to receive vaccinations," they said.
DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said the agency's attorneys are reviewing Nygren and Darling's request "to inform our next steps."
"We all agree that seniors need access to vaccine, and the Department will ensure they they have access to the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available," she said.
Palm, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, has emerged as a lightning rod for conservative criticism during the coronavirus pandemic, with some state senators saying they will vote to fire her by rejecting her confirmation.
Palm and Evers have been united in efforts to fight the pandemic, including the statewide mask mandate and attempts blocked by courts to limit capacity in bars and restaurants and the "safer at home" order that closed many businesses early in the outbreak.
A coronavirus aid bill that the Legislature passed with near-unanimous support in April, and that Evers signed into law, included a provision to expand the SeniorCare program to cover existing recommended vaccinations as well as any COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
The department should have acted more quickly to implement the law, Nygren and Darling said.
State law required the expanded coverage for vaccinations to take effect on April 17, an attorney for the Wisconsin Legislative Council, which provides legal advice to the Legislature, said in an Oct. 28 letter to Nygren.
The state could fund vaccinations provided through SeniorCare while it waits for approval from the federal government to help cover the costs, Nygren and Darling wrote. The vaccinations are expected to cost about $80,000 a year.
Expanding the services "improves the quality of care offered to Wisconsin's seniors and will help protect a vulnerable population from COVID-19 when a vaccine is developed and approved," Darling and Nygren wrote.
Palm said in an Oct. 19 letter to Nygren and Darling that before the expanded coverage could be implemented, the Legislature's budget committee needed to approve an amendment to the SeniorCare program so it could get federal reimbursement. That approval was given last week.