Jim McLean

Reporter and Editor, Heartland Health Monitor

Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KHI News Service, a partner in the the Heartland Health Monitor team. HHM is a reporting collaboration among KCUR, KHI News Service in Topeka, Kan., KCPT television in Kansas City, Mo.,  and Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence, Kan.

McLean oversees the KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute. Before joining KHI, McLean was news director and Statehouse bureau chief for Kansas Public Radio and a managing editor for the Topeka Capital-Journal. McLean has received awards for journalistic excellence from the Kansas Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and Kansas Association of Broadcasters.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the latest legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act preserves federal tax subsidies that nearly 270,000 consumers in Kansas and Missouri used to help them purchase health insurance.

If the decision handed down Thursday had gone the other way, those consumers, many of whom were previously uninsured, might have been forced to drop their coverage.

RELATED: High Court Upholds Health Law Subsidies 

Kansas already had the ninth-most regressive tax system in the nation, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The tax increase signed last week by Gov. Sam Brownback to balance the budget and end the longest legislative session in state history will make the system less fair to low- and middle-income Kansans, said Matt Gardner, executive director of the nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

The last thing Rep. Pete DeGraaf needed last week was more stress in his life.

But only a day after a doctor confirmed what DeGraaf had long suspected — that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease — he was back at the Capitol for the final stress-filled stretch of the longest legislative session in Kansas history.

Asked why during an interview in his small Statehouse office with his wife, Karen, at his side, DeGraaf’s answer was simple.

“I enjoy being a legislator,” he said.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

The legislator leading a faction of Kansas House members pushing to reinstate taxes on business owners exempted by the 2012 tax cut law has given up the battle.

Rep. Mark Hutton, a conservative Republican businessman from Wichita, said Wednesday that a veto threat from Gov. Sam Brownback and other considerations meant that continuing the fight would make it more likely that lawmakers would go home without balancing the budget, forcing Brownback to make across-the-board spending cuts to erase a projected deficit of roughly $400 million.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

Legislators locked in increasingly tense discussions about how to balance the budget and end the longest legislative session in Kansas history said there is no longer any serious talk about expanding Medicaid eligibility this year.

“Given all the time we’ve wasted, it is incredibly disappointing that we couldn’t find the time to deal with this issue,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and the Legislature’s most vocal advocate of expansion.

Jim McLean / KHI News Service

The Kansas House could end the longest legislative session in state history Monday by approving a tax plan passed Sunday by the Senate.

The tax plan would generate about $471 million for the budget year that begins July 1, enough to cover a projected deficit and provide a $73 million ending-balance cushion.

“I would hope that we could pass this with a strong vote, strong enough to send a message to the House that says, ‘This is the answer to finish our work this year,’” said Les Donovan, chairman of the Senate tax committee.

Tax conference committees will go back to the negotiating table Friday after the House resoundingly rejected a plan that suspended Gov. Sam Brownback’s “glide path to zero” income tax but did not substantially roll back a business tax exemption that was part of a 2012 tax bill Brownback signed.

The bill that made it to the House floor on Day 105 of the traditionally 90-day session relied largely on sales tax increases for the $406 million in new tax revenue needed to finish closing an almost $800 million structural deficit in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Andy Marso / Heartland Health Monitor

Frustrated by their inability to muster more than a handful of votes for any tax plan, Kansas Republican legislative leaders are asking rank-and-file members the “What will it take to get out of here?” question.

They’re getting a variety of answers as the session, on its 103rd day, inches closer to record territory as the longest in state history. In 2002, legislators met for 107 days.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran has what amounts to a running feud going with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He says the agency is dragging its feet implementing a new law called the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 that’s designed to help veterans in rural areas get the care they need.

But Robert McDonald, the new VA secretary, says Moran’s claims are baseless.

KHI News Service

The chairman of the Senate committee working on a plan to address the projected budget deficit in Kansas is confident that a tobacco tax increase will be a part of the final package.

However, public health advocates are concerned that the increase won’t end up being large enough to significantly lower smoking rates and reduce expenditures on smoking-related illnesses. They continue to favor a proposal that Gov. Sam Brownback announced at the beginning of the session to increase the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack.

Mercy Hospital, Independence

At the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, Kansas hospital administrators signaled their willingness to talk about increasing a state assessment on their revenues to fund Medicaid expansion.

They anticipated that the state’s deteriorating budget situation would make it impossible for Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican legislative leaders to consider expansion without a way to pay for the state’s share of the costs.

And they anticipated that even with funding options, Medicaid expansion was a long shot to pass.

Supporters say they still hope to force floor votes on an expansion bill, although Brownback and legislative leaders remain opposed to it.

But it’s clear that hospital officials didn’t anticipate the turn of events that has put them on the defensive in the final weeks of the session.

Brownback and key lawmakers are now talking about raising the provider assessment. But they see it as a way to help balance the budget rather than fund a Medicaid expansion plan.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

Sherri Calderwood’s Obamacare story isn’t unique.

It’s probably similar to those that could be told by many of the nearly 100,000 Kansans who have so far purchased coverage in the Affordable Care Act marketplace known as healthcare.gov.

Calderwood looked into signing up for an Obamacare plan during the first enrollment period but concluded she and her husband couldn’t afford it. 

Mike Sherry / Heartland Health Monitor

States that opted to use the federal health insurance marketplace instead of establishing one of their own can’t restrict the ability of certified navigators to help consumers, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely affirms an earlier ruling by a federal district court that blocked implementation of a Missouri law.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

 

About 100 people rallied Wednesday within earshot of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s office to demand the repeal of income tax cuts they say are crippling the state.

The Rev Up Kansas coalition staged the event to call attention to the state’s ongoing budget problems, which organizers said are the result of tax cuts that Brownback championed in the mistaken belief that they would jump-start the Kansas economy.

A conservative advocacy group that opposes Medicaid expansion in Kansas is fighting a Florida plan backed by that state’s Republican Senate president.

Health News Florida, a partner of the KHI News Service, reports that Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group funded by Kansas business titans Charles and David Koch, is sending mailers to voters in 23 Florida Senate districts in an effort to stop a Medicaid expansion plan that recently started gaining momentum.

Mercy Hospital Independence

Two southeast Kansas hospitals — one in Independence, the other in Fort Scott — are among several in Kansas that might have to close in part due to the state’s failure to expand Medicaid.  

To prevent that, both are actively negotiating potential partnerships with neighboring hospitals. Officials at Mercy Hospital Independence and the Coffeyville Regional Medical Center are talking. Similar discussions are underway between Mercy Hospital Fort Scott and Via Christi in Pittsburg.

www.woodsoncounty.net

A cluster of counties in southeast Kansas are among the least healthy in the state, according to new rankings released Wednesday.

Four of the five state’s unhealthiest counties — Woodson, Cherokee, Greenwood and Labette — are in southeast Kansas. Several other counties in the region rank among the bottom 10.

But the director of an initiative launched in 2011 to address the underlying causes of the region’s health and economic problems said progress is being made.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

The recent legislative hearings on Medicaid expansion brought representatives from dozens of powerful groups to the Kansas Statehouse.

Lobbyists representing hospitals, doctors and some big businesses pleaded with members of the House Health and Human Services Committee to approve an expansion proposal one day.  The next day representatives of conservative, anti-tax organizations urged committee members to continue to say ‘no’ to expansion, despite the billions of additional federal dollars it would inject into the Kansas economy.

But the hearings also attracted scores of everyday citizens. They included those who need the coverage that expansion would provide and others opposed to extending benefits to non-disabled adults.

Andy Marso / Heartland Health Monitor

Supporters of expanding Medicaid in Kansas are finally getting an opportunity to make their case to lawmakers.

Republican legislative leaders opposed to expansion have blocked hearings on the issue for two years. They agreed to allow hearings this year only after supporters in the Kansas House threatened to force an immediate vote on the floor.

The state of Kansas and four nonprofit organizations are seeking federal approval to conduct an experiment that they hope will boost participation in a summer meals program that now is serving only a fraction of eligible children.

Led by the Kansas State Department of Education, the coalition is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to temporarily waive some rules so that it can conduct a demonstration project to feed needy children in rural parts of the state when school is out for the summer.

Kansas lawmakers are preparing to vote on a bill that would further tighten the rules for the state’s two main public assistance programs.

The measure, which the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee endorsed on Wednesday, writes into state law several recent administrative changes made as part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s welfare to work initiative.

KHI News Service photo

News that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has softened his position on Medicaid expansion wasn’t exactly racing through the Statehouse on Thursday.

But it certainly had some legislators buzzing.

In remarks Wednesday to conservative lawmakers in Missouri, Brownback said if the Kansas Legislature presented him with a budget-neutral expansion bill, he would likely sign it, according to a report in the Missouri Times.

Bills that would further tighten eligibility for public assistance programs will be among the first that Kansas lawmakers consider this week when they return to the Capitol from a short mid-session break.

The bills — House Bill 2381 — and Senate Bill 256 ­— would write into state law several controversial administrative changes made in recent years as part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to move people from welfare to work.

More than 300,000 consumers in Kansas and Missouri have a stake in the case argued Wednesday in the U.S. Supreme Court over a provision in the Affordable Care Act.

The vast majority of people who purchased Affordable Care Act coverage in both states qualified for federal tax credits. But they could lose those credits if the court rules that only consumers using state-based marketplaces are entitled to them.

The odds that the Kansas Legislature will pass a Medicaid expansion bill this session remain long.

But they improved Thursday, however slightly, when conservative Republican leaders agreed to allow a hearing on expansion to avoid an immediate vote on the House floor.

Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, was attempting to amend his Medicaid expansion proposal into an unrelated bill. Uncertain how a vote might turn out, House leaders dropped their opposition to a hearing in exchange for Ward withdrawing his amendment.

Legislation to allow Kansas dental hygienists with advanced training to provide a broader range of services isn’t likely to survive approaching deadlines that restrict the number of bills lawmakers can consider during the remainder of their session.

Because they are non-budget bills that haven’t advanced in either legislative chamber, the bills authorizing the licensing of registered dental practitioners (RDPs) likely will be set aside for the remainder of the session.

Andy Marso / Heartland Health Monitor

The chairman of a Kansas House committee holding three Medicaid expansion bills says he has no current plans to have hearings on any of the proposals.

“At this time I haven’t scheduled anything,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican and chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee. “Will I schedule something? I can’t say right now. But right now there is nothing scheduled.”

Jane Stevens / Creative Commons-Flickr

Obamacare enrollment grew by nearly 70 percent in both Kansas and Missouri during the most recent sign-up period, according to preliminary figures released Wednesday by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of Kansans enrolled in plans offered through the Affordable Care Act marketplace increased to 96,226 from 57,013. Missouri enrollment jumped to 253,969 from 152,335.

The new totals include those who purchased coverage for the first time as well as those who switched plans or re-enrolled in the coverage they chose during the first sign-up period.

Jim McLean / Heartland Health Monitor

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius didn’t mince words when asked about the direction of Kansas politics during an event Thursday night at the Dole Institute of Politics.

Making one of her first Kansas public appearances since stepping down in June as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Sebelius called the re-election of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback “a low point” in the state’s political history.

Now there are three.

Medicaid expansion bills, that is.

After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with legislators and members of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, the Kansas Hospital Association has introduced its expansion bill.

Rep. Don Hill, a Republican from Emporia, requested its introduction in the House Appropriations Committee.

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