By Steve Jagler Special to Published Nov 24, 2006 at 10:05 AM
Sometimes, State Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) must feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

However, in Richards' world, the giants are real. It's the scope of his mission that seems almost mythical.

Richards is the driving force behind the proposed Wisconsin Health Plan, an initiative to create a new health care system in the state. To succeed, Richards will need to bring a vast range of constituencies into one tent: Democrats, Republicans, organized labor, businesses, farmers, the insurance industry, physicians and even consumers.

Richards had a Republican co-sponsor in his mission until Nov. 7, when Rep. Curt Gielow (R-Mequon) did not run for re-election.

Gielow boldly dared to reach across the aisle and work to find a bipartisan solution to one of Wisconsin's worst problems -- perpetually skyrocketing health care costs. For his efforts, Gielow caught a lot of internal political grief from the Republican Assembly leadership.

With Gielow going back into the private sector, Richards is courting a new Republican partner for the Wisconsin Health Plan.

"A Republican co-sponsor will be announced shortly," Richards says.

The new concept is controversial because its impact would be far-reaching.

Most people would agree that the current system is not working. Many employers are paying more than 15 percent of their payroll costs on employee health care benefits.
With the proposed Wisconsin Health Plan, state businesses would have to pay three to 12 percent of their payrolls to fund the new system. Those assessments would replace the health care premiums that employees and businesses currently pay.

"The assessment is not on top of what the employer is paying," says David Riemer, project director for the Wisconsin Health Plan. "It replaces it. For the average employer, this will be a reduction."

In the program, employees would pay about two percent of their wages eligible for Social Security taxes.

Many business executives have a knee-jerk resistance to any type of program that has any type of governmental role. That reaction has well-founded historical roots.

However, Richards insists the new plan would not be "a government program." The state would collect the assessments, and health care providers would bid for the right to serve the state's residents. The high volumes would reap lower costs.

At least, that's the theory.

Supporters of the program point out that Wisconsin employers already are paying the way for large companies such as Wal-Mart, the largest employer of uninsured people in the state. If you think about it, why should Wisconsin small businesses and their employees pay higher insurance premiums to help defray the costs for the health care of Wal-Mart's workforce?

Still, Richards knows the skeptics are many.

"It's a tall order. But what's helping enormously is the pain that everyone is feeling with health care costs now," Richards said. "There is a huge coalition of the frustrated that wants something done. Our health care costs are some of the highest in the country."

Richards is finding some private support. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and other private interests are funding a new actuarial audit of health care costs in the state. The Lewin Group of Falls Church, Va., will conduct the study.

"They'll study our health care market in general and what our plan would do," Richards says.

Such independent analysis will be crucial for Richards to convince such a diverse group of constituencies to try such a bold idea. For more information, visit

- Steve Jagler is the executive editor of Small Business Times (
Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at