As Iowa State Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, enters his second term serving Iowa House District 29, and his first term as an assistant minority leader of Iowa House Democrats, the Newton politician’s priorities are fixated on a sustainable health care system, stable mental health services and boosting the economy through a skilled workforce.
Leading into the 2019 legislative session, Breckenridge is looking at the efficiency of specific programs and smart spending of public tax dollars in some of the more talked about and widespread concerns in the state, in addition to addressing supplementary or ongoing issues raised by his constituents.
Building and maintaining quality-yet-affordable health care for Iowans continues to be a concern for Breckenridge, who frequently criticized the privatization of Iowa’s Medicaid program throughout his 2018 campaign.
The state representative told the Newton Daily News in October, less than one month shy of Election Day, the state’s choice to privatize the health care program— an alteration originally helmed by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad — should be acknowledged as “a failure” since people who often “depend on services are falling through the cracks and not getting the services they deserve.”
Health care changes, Breckenridge said, impact everyone’s lives “either directly or indirectly.” Following the state’s decision to allow private companies to manage the $5 billion program, Breckenridge cited inadequate reimbursements for services, denial of claims and a lack of funding to health care providers “that could potentially lead them to not providing services or maybe even lose (clinics or doctors) in an area” of the state.
“You take Skiff (Medical Center) here in town. I bet if you visited with them they would tell you about the thousands of claims that have been denied or rejected that Medicaid claims for extensive amount of dollars that they have probably not been paid, which raises the cost of health care (and) makes it tougher for (Skiff) to provide all the same gamut of services that they normally provide,” Breckenridge said in Dec. 19 interview.
Small clinic providers in Jasper County, Breckenridge said, have also been “struggling to keep their doors open” after the privatization shift. Admittedly, “there’s no easy answer,” he added, but the challenge legislators have is keeping individuals from being denied or prevented from getting the care they need. Looking at the problem from “a more holistic approach” is a strategy Breckenridge wants to implement moving forward.
At the next legislative session, Breckenridge said proposals regarding increased oversight of Medicaid managed care organizations (MCOs) will likely be discussed. Although he is ultimately unsure if the topic will be presented, he hopes such oversight measures are put in place to “be kind of that checks and balances and work with (Iowa Department of Human Services) and the MCOs to ensure that we’re meeting the standards that were promised to those that were getting those services.”
In regards to the access to mental health services in Iowa, Breckenridge touts Jasper County as a model for the rest of the state. Frequent visits to places like Optimae Life Services, Progress Industries, Capstone Behavioral Healthcare and Integrated Treatment Services, LLC have convinced the Newton Democrat the local agencies “provide a very valuable service for our citizens in a time of need.” However, if Iowans continue to have “declining reimbursement rates (and medical) transportation costs,” Breckenridge questions how mental health providers are going to maintain those same services to help citizens.
“I am very proud of the team we have in Jasper County (and) the work that they’ve done and continue to do,” Breckenridge said.
In October, Breckenridge cited a “multifaceted mental health bill” (HF2456) passed by the Iowa Legislature that “substantially increases resources and services” and “calls for six mental health access centers.” Yet, Breckenridge said the state must then follow through by providing “a stable funding source.”
Although he acknowledges funding is and will likely always be a major component to providing quality mental health services, Breckenridge said looking at what efficiencies can be put in place and eliminating any redundancies are just as important factors — anything to make sure public tax dollars are not going to waste.
Criminal justice reform
Weeks after the 2018 midterm election, Gov. Kim Reynolds told Iowa reporters she was open to the idea of automatically restoring the voting rights of Iowa felons, which could ultimately affect more than 50,000 Iowans. To date, Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states which administer lifetime voting bans to its felons. However, Iowa felons’ voting rights can be restored in a case-by-case basis, exclusively by the governor.
Breckenridge said he is in favor of supporting criminal justice reform, as well as recovery methods such as treatment programs and anger management programs, to help reduce the state’s recidivism rate and help those incarcerated to become valuable and productive citizens. He added he is open to the discussion of restoring voting rights so long as the recovery components are included in the conversation.
“We need to make sure it is a holistic approach and truly helping the individuals that may be struggling, that are making bad choices, to help them to not re-offend,” Breckenridge said.
Developing those details associated with restoring voting rights of felons is going to be a challenge for the legislature. If such an action is proposed, lawmakers would likely have to identify what a felon would need to do and when such rights would be restored, as well as define what it means to have “paid their debt to society” — whether it be after jail time, probation or fines paid, for instance. Breckenridge said recovered felons deserve to get their voting rights back.
“We need to have that conversation so we can be fair and consistent with everybody that will be moving in that direction,” he said.
Education and the workforce
In 2019, Breckenridge also wants to look at opening the flexibility of categorization fund spending to allow schools the option of receiving more money for in need areas or programs — for instance, one school may need more funds for its at-risk program while another district may need more transportation dollars even though its at-risk program is doing just fine. Giving schools more flexibility in their spending may help problem areas while others maintain a level head.
As an adjunct instructor at Des Moines Area Community College — specifically the Career Academy’s criminal justice courses — Breckenridge sees the firsthand benefits of Jasper County schools preparing students to become the area’s future workforce, thereby cultivating careers in law enforcement, welding, nursing and business management, among others.
Identifying gaps in the workforce and continuing to facilitate collaborations between colleges and school districts is the direction Jasper County and Iowa need to be headed, Breckenridge said. He added that stressing the importance of particular job fields to students is also needed to grow the workforce.
Economy and job growth
In tandem to general education improvements and workforce development, Breckenridge has his sights set on the economy and job market in the 2019 legislative session. According to a Dec. 21 press release from Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s unemployment rate remained at 2.4 percent in November. The rate nationally remained at 3.7 percent.
Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, said in the release the recent report “continues to reflect the powerful opportunities that exist in our state,” but the awaiting challenge “is building out skilled workforce at a rate that matches our growth.”
Breckenridge said it would be nice to see a larger growth in wage and income for citizens to accumulate spending dollars. Typically, a low unemployment rate can stimulate growth in the economy.
“We haven’t seen, in my opinion, the kind of growth that we anticipated or expected,” Breckenridge said. “I think that’s an issue we need to look at. How do we boost the economy to help all Iowans make ends meet?”
Breckenridge added Iowa’s minimum wage should certainly be higher than $7.25 an hour. What that rate should be is “hard to say.” The challenge for Breckenridge and his fellow lawmakers is finding a balance between boosting the economy and creating better-paying jobs with fair benefits without “stagnating the economy” and job growth. Conversations with corporations and businesses big and small, he said, could help determine a path moving forward to help stimulate growth.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or email@example.com