Kansas Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Pilcher-Cook Ousted

Feb 15, 2016

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee, was replaced Friday as chairwoman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.
Credit KHI News Service

A spat over Medicaid expansion and Senate rules caused the leader of the Kansas Senate to replace the chairwoman of the Senate Public Health Committee on Friday.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, said in a statement released Saturday morning that Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook “showed a complete disrespect for the body and its rules” earlier in the week.

Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, offered an amendment to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act during a Tuesday Senate floor debate about Medicaid drug reimbursement. Pilcher-Cook, an outspoken opponent of the ACA, or “Obamacare,” wanted the Senate to vote it down decisively to send a message to House members that they should not vote on it.

The Senate’s rules committee unanimously ruled the amendment out of order, but Pilcher-Cook challenged the ruling.

The senators then had to vote on whether to uphold the rules committee or support Pilcher-Cook in her efforts to kill Medicaid expansion.

Wagle said that put senators in an untenable spot.

“In bringing her amendment the way she did, Sen. Pilcher-Cook chose to flout the rules of the Senate,” Wagle said. “Other senators, concerned that they would be depicted as supporting Obamacare if they voted to uphold the rules, felt compelled to vote in favor of Sen. Pilcher-Cook’s illegitimate amendment.”

For her part, Pilcher-Cook released a statement blasting the decision to remove her as chairwoman and Wagle’s leadership in general.

Pilcher-Cook said Wagle was playing politics in betrayal of conservatives, comparing her to former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican whose leadership chafed the chamber’s more right-wing members.

“Instead of allowing members to stand on principle and vote their conscience, she seeks to push conservative principles aside and push her own political agenda,” Pilcher-Cook said.

Pilcher-Cook accused Wagle of wanting to enact Medicaid expansion.

Wagle strongly denied that, but she also promised that the Senate would vote on expansion within the next few weeks “so there can be no question of where the Kansas Senate stands on this issue.”

Wagle said Wichita Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell would replace Pilcher-Cook as chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee on an interim basis. Sen. Elaine Bowers, a Republican from Concordia, will be vice chair.

Medicaid expansion would provide health insurance to an estimated 150,000 Kansans and draw down hundreds of millions in federal funds for health care providers. Opponents of expansion say it will be costly to the state and discourage work.

The House has also had political jockeying related to Medicaid expansion this year. Before the session started, House Speaker Ray Merrick, an expansion opponent, removed three expansion supporters from the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso