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Baldwin asks Walker to delay enrollment deadline for those losing BadgerCare coverage

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Gov. Scott Walker called a special legislative session Thursday to extend the deadline for moving 77,000 people off Medicaid until April, saying they need more time to sign up for private insurance through the problematic online federal health care exchange.

Walker, a Republican, blasted the federal rollout during a news conference, calling the launch "abysmal" and saying he wants to make sure everyone who needs more time to find coverage gets it.

"We see very vividly it's not working," Walker said of the exchange. "We want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks."

Walker toughened Medicaid eligibility in the state budget, forcing 77,000 people off the state's BadgerCare plan and into the marketplace as of Jan. 1. The governor's administration gave everyone who would lose coverage until Dec. 15 to sign up for an alternative plan through the exchange to ensure uninterrupted coverage.

The exchange, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's signature health care reform plan, offers people a chance to shop online for a private insurance plan. People who sign up for the plans can collect federal subsidies.

The website went live on Oct. 1 but it's been fraught with technical problems, making it difficult to sign up. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released state-by-state numbers on Wednesday that showed only 877 Wisconsin residents have been able to successfully enroll in a program between Oct. 1 and Nov. 2.

Walker said he wants the Legislature to pass a bill that would extend Medicaid coverage for those 77,000 people until April 1, the day the exchange is supposed to close. The governor also said he wants lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow about 20,000 people to continue to get insurance through what's known as a high-risk pool through April 1.

The pool - funded by a mix of money from health care providers, insurance companies and premiums - offers coverage for people with serious conditions who can't get it elsewhere. The federal reforms mandate insurance companies provide coverage regardless of a person's condition, eliminating the need for the pools. Wisconsin's pool ends Jan. 1.

Walker said both groups deserve more time to find private coverage through the exchange since the website doesn't work yet.

Walker said he wants to see the Legislature act on the bills by early December. The special session would begin when Walker issues an executive order setting the date. Walker didn't say when he would issue the order, and his spokesman said only that the order would be "forthcoming soon."

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told The Associated Press he wasn't sure how much support Walker has for the proposals, saying the Legislature shouldn't have to "bail out" Democrats after they botched the exchange. He said he'd rather extend the deadline on a month-to-month basis.

"I'd just like to explore that first," he said. "I'm working with the governor to get there."

Walker brushed aside Fitzgerald's remarks during his news conference, calling them an "initial reaction." He said he doesn't think the state should be revisiting the problem on a monthly basis.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said he believes most Republicans would support the delay.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, sent Walker a letter Tuesday asking him to let the 77,000 stay on Medicaid through the end of March.

Baldwin issued a statement saying she was pleased Walker listened to her call to extend coverage but criticized him for not setting up a state-run exchange and refusing federal funds to expand Medicaid in the state.

Walker denied that he called the special session in response to Baldwin's letter, saying his administration had contemplated extending the deadline since it crafted the state budget depending on the exchange's performance.

He refused the federal Medicaid expansion because he didn't want to make people dependent on the federal government, a position he said the exchange rollout problems have validated.