For Bruce Witt, director of government relations for Via Christi Health, lobbying state legislators is a full-time job, even though the Legislature is in session only part of the year.
“It’s not like there’s a book you read on how you do lobbying,” Witt said. “It’s dependent a lot on relationships but also just having an understanding of the process. Clearly you need to understand the issues, but not only that, but who you need to talk to on those issues to have an appropriate impact.”
Like agriculture, banking and dozens of other industries and interests, the health care industry has a long history of lobbying in Topeka.
But special attention has been focused on health care this year because of state and federal laws taking effect that impact consumers and health care providers.
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On the state level, Gov. Sam Brownback is moving to privatize Medicaid. On the federal level, the Affordable Care Act’s provisions are the subject of national and state debate.
‘Movers and shakers’
Many health care providers in the state have taken an active role in meeting with elected officials to offer their opinions.
“A lot of it’s identifying who are the movers and shakers in the Capitol, and if you don’t have strong and trusting relationships with those folks, you’re going to have a more difficult time being successful,” Witt said.
Lobbying is one of the main purposes of the Kansas Hospital Association in Topeka, said Cindy Samuelson, vice president of member services and public relations. The KHA is one of the largest and oldest health-related organizations in the state.
“As we look at upcoming elections and more into the 2013 legislative session, one of the largest challenges all advocacy groups are facing is the number of new faces,” said Chad Austin, vice president of government relations for KHA.
A number of legislators decided not to run for re-election or were ousted in primaries. That means the association will work to inform new members about the issues most important to its members.
Radiologist John Lohnes is co-chairman of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County’s political action committee, informally called SedgPAC.
“We meet with legislators formally and informally,” Lohnes said. “Sometimes they’ll call us and ask for opinions and help trying to understand medical issues since it’s not their area of expertise.”
SedgPAC has offered some financial support to candidates, but Lohnes says “As PACs go, we’re pretty innocuous.” SedgPAC takes on more of a supportive role for the Kansas Medical Society, which spent about $50,000 on campaign contributions from January to July 2012.
Issues in 2013
Lobbyists say the main health care issues in the next legislative session will likely focus on Medicaid reform, which the state is privatizing under a new program called KanCare, along with other issues that aren’t yet on the radar.
“With KanCare, we’re supportive to the extent those eligible and currently covered … continue to receive the appropriate care and supports that they need at the right time and place,” Witt said.
“Our mission is to care for those who are vulnerable in our community, and we want to make sure that program accomplishes that goal, so that’s why appropriate funding is critical.”
In the last legislative session, Witt said they spoke with legislators about proposed legislation allowing conceal carry in hospitals, which Via Christi was against, as well as implementing an E-verify system for government contractors to identify illegal immigrants. Via Christi was against the system because of the required additional cost, Witt said.
Some issues the KHA discussed with legislators included supporting newborn screening programs, tort reform and asking legislators to “keep an open mind” about the state’s Medicaid reform.
Like most industries and interests involved in the political arena, efforts to sway the process include monetary donations.
There are more than 20 health care related political action committees in the state; most are offshoots of already existing organizations and associations.
For example, the Kansas Hospital Association’s political action committee, KHA-PAC, disbursed more than $32,000 in campaign contributions so far this year, according to filings with the state.
“We have a steering committee made up of hospital members who review upcoming elections and discuss those candidates and discuss those that have a history or relationship with hospitals and a tendency to support hospitals and health care issue in line with what our association supports,” Austin said.
In 2011, Wesley Medical Center contributed $17,500 toward the HCA Good Government Fund PAC and in 2012, it contributed $21,500. Wesley is owned by Hospital Corporation of America.
The contributions went toward the KHA, Brownback for Governor and legislative campaigns – mostly of incumbents – of both parties.
Because Via Christi is a nonprofit, it cannot contribute to political action committees or directly to campaigns.
However, individuals within the organizations are allowed to contribute, and Witt said several senior administrators and employees do so.
PAC financial contribution information is public. But because of reporting deadlines, PAC campaign contributions made in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6 likely won’t be available until after the election.