A yearlong campaign aimed at building support for Medicaid expansion culminated Wednesday in a show-of-force lobbying effort aimed at convincing Kansas lawmakers that they still have time to act.
A crowd of approximately 200 filled the north wing of the Statehouse for a rally before the House Health and Human Services Committee convened a hearing on a bill that would expand eligibility for KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, to more low-income Kansans.
At the hearing, representatives of hospitals, clinics, consumer groups and some of the state’s largest business organizations urged lawmakers to discount conflicting information coming out of Washington, D.C., about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and move forward on expansion.
“We have two choices,” said Tom Bell, president and CEO of the Kansas Hospital Association. “One is, we can sit back and wait and see what happens in Congress. Or, two, we can get in line and get this money back to our state.”
Bell and others pointed to the fact that several Republican governors in expansion states are seeking approval from the Trump administration to keep their programs in place. That, he said, is putting pressure on Republican members of Congress to delay repeal and consider replacement alternatives.
“There are 62 senators who represent states that have expanded Medicaid,” Bell said. “Do you think that they’re going to just follow along with this debate and let their state be thrown under the bus?”
So far, 31 states and the District of Columbia have expanded their Medicaid programs. Kansas is among 19 that haven’t.
The decision in 2014 by Gov. Sam Brownback to reject expansion and the refusal of legislative leaders to consider the issue since then has cost the state about $1.7 billion in federal Medicaid funds, Bell said.
The loss of that funding coupled with reductions in Medicare reimbursements have hit many Kansas hospitals hard, hastening the closure of Mercy Hospital in Independence and forcing others to seek help from local taxpayers to keep their doors open.
The most personal and stirring testimony Wednesday came from an uninsured woman struggling to work and raise her granddaughters and a doctor whose low-income patients often wait too long to seek care.
Suzann Emmons runs a small housekeeping business in Iola. She makes too much to qualify for KanCare under existing eligibility rules but not enough to qualify for help purchasing private Obamacare coverage. Fighting back tears, Emmons, who is raising her two granddaughters, said she lives “in constant fear” about what would happen if she got sick.
“I am employed,” she said. “I contribute to our state. I stepped up for my granddaughters and am doing my best to help them succeed. But I need your help. If something happens to my health and I can’t treat the problem, our family unit breaks down. I don’t want that to happen.”
Dr. Robert Freelove of Salina also had to fight his emotions when talking about a young mother of three working two jobs who waited too long to seek treatment for breast cancer, and when describing the slow, painful death of a 57-year-old diabetic truck driver who didn’t seek treatment until his foot “was half eaten away.”
“What we’re talking about are people’s lives, people’s lives,” he said, pausing to regain his composure.
He pointedly asked committee members to consider the circumstances of the waitress serving them the next time they’re in a coffee shop or the clerk the next time they’re checking out at the convenience store.
“I want you to look in those people’s eyes and ask yourself how you can’t support House Bill 2064,” he said referring to the number of the expansion bill.
The bill would extend eligibility for KanCare to approximately 300,000 Kansas adults with annual incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,000 annually for an individual. However, it’s expected that only about half that number would enroll for a variety of reasons.
Shortly after the hearing concluded, Brownback reiterated his opposition to expansion in a strongly worded statement.
“It is not affordable, costing the state upwards of $100 million in the next two years,” Brownback said, adding that it would do little to help small rural hospitals.
“President Trump was elected having declared his intention to do away with Obamacare, and he has already taken action to alleviate its onerous regular and financial burdens,” he continued. “Kansas should not tie itself to this failed program of the past just before its inevitable demise.”
Dr. Susan Mosier, who serves on Brownback’s Cabinet as secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, is among the opponents expected to testify Thursday at the third and final hearing on the expansion bill.
Jim McLean is managing director of KCUR’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.