Kansas health care advocates continue to push Medicaid expansion, despite slim prospects in Legislature
TOPEKA — Kansas hospital officials and other health care advocates gathered in Topeka on Wednesday to organize for a legislative fight to expand the state’s Medicaid system, known as KanCare, as allowed under the Affordable Care Act.
But chances either chamber of the Legislature will take up the issue this year now appear slim, despite earlier assurances from Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, that the issue would get a vote this year.
Tom Bell, president and CEO of the Kansas Hospital Association, acknowledged he is not optimistic it will happen.
“If we could have a policy discussion about this rather than a political discussion, we’d be miles ahead. But I don’t know that that’s going to happen,” he said.
Last month, Wagle removed Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee as punishment after Pilcher-Cook tried to add the Hospital Association’s bill as an amendment onto an unrelated bill.
The bill, Senate Bill 371, had not even had a hearing, but Pilcher-Cook said she wanted the Senate to vote it down in order to send a message to the House that the Senate had no interest in Medicaid expansion.
In announcing Pilcher-Cook’s removal as chair of the committee, Wagle issued a press release Feb. 13 saying, “The body will take up the question of KanCare expansion under ObamaCare for a vote in the next few weeks.” But she added, “Once that vote is taken, I think it will be clear that a majority of the Kansas Senate firmly oppose expansion of KanCare under Obamacare.”
Since then, though, no action has been taken on the bill, and the new interim chairman of the committee, Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said Thrsday that he has no intention of holding hearings on it.
Wagle said Wednesday the language of the bill could be amended into another bill dealing with Medicaid or health care, but such a move would likely mean it would only be debated on the floor of the Senate and would never have a committee hearing in which advocates could present data and testimony.
Meanwhile, advocates who spoke during a panel discussion at the Kansas Hospital Association’s forum said small towns and rural communities are paying a heavy price for the Legislature’s refusal to even discuss Medicaid expansion.
Rural hospitals have been hit particularly hard because part of the financing for the Affordable Care Act comes from reducing payments to hospitals from Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, in exchange for getting more people enrolled through Medicaid or private insurance, which would reduce the amount of money they lose from treating the uninsured.
In states like Kansas that have chosen not to expand Medicaid, the number of uninsured individuals has not dropped substantially. But hospitals are still taking the loss from reduced Medicare payments.
Terry Deschaine, a trustee at the Sumner Regional Medical Center in Wellington, said voters in Wellington recently approved a 1-cent sales tax to help keep the local hospital afloat. But he said there are an estimated 31 hospitals in Kansas, mostly in small communities, that are at risk of having to close in the near future.
“If half of these 31 hospitals at risk in Kansas would end up closing in their communities, that would be, in my opinion, total devastation to those communities,” he said.
Rob Freelove, who is CEO and medical director at Salina Family Health Care, said the lack of Medicaid expansion in Kansas has made it hard for his facility to recruit doctors.
“I think what it shows is a lack of support, and a lack of understanding of the benefits of health and primary care, access to health and support for physicians,” he said. “To me, that’s going to be very difficult to overcome from a recruitment standpoint.”
Deschaine said the only way to get Medicaid expansion in Kansas may be for voters to demand it at the ballot box.
“We need our legislators to support us on something that is so basic and such a no-brainer,” he said. “If they don’t, then we need to go out and find somebody else.”