Kansas Republican lawmakers have advanced a bill aimed at separating Kansas from the federal Affordable Care Act.
And one to indefinitely stop Kansas from expanding Medicaid under the act.
And one to require background checks for counselors who help consumers navigate the online insurance marketplace.
They have held hearings about lawsuits against the health care act and its impact on businesses.
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And they use “Obamacare” as shorthand to explain their opposition to unrelated issues such as mortgage registration fees or Common Core education standards.
Republicans say their intent is to protect Kansans from a flawed law. But Democrats say the GOP is focusing on a federal policy to avoid scrutiny of state issues.
Voters can expect to see debate over the issue continue in TV ads and in mailers during this fall’s campaigns.
Where a candidate stands on the Affordable Care Act tells voters about his philosophy of government, Republican Party leaders say.
“There is no better example of the difference between the two parties,” said David Kensinger, Gov. Sam Brownback’s former chief of staff who now chairs his political action committee.
Kansas Democrats, meanwhile, dismiss state attempts to fight the federal care act – like last week’s House vote to commit the state to a possible health care compact separate from the act – as political theater. They say they will focus on education and jobs.
“We’ll keep talking about Kansas and they’ll keep talking about Washington, D.C.,” said Dakota Loomis, communications director for the Kansas Democratic Party.
The Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress in early 2010, was intended to make coverage affordable and accessible to uninsured Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions.
Republicans criticized aspects of the law from the beginning, including its impact on the market and businesses and the tax penalty for people who do not buy insurance.
Implementation of the program has been plagued with technical problems and delays.
Those problems have become a powerful political weapon for Republicans, who point to the issue as a key reason for a GOP victory in a special U.S. House election in Florida earlier this month.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Republicans “want to keep the whole Obamacare issue hot … just like they did in 2012.”
That year, a direct mail campaign by the Kansas Chamber political action committee attacked moderate Republicans as “Obamacare robots” and helped put conservatives in control of the Senate.
Kelly said that although some of the anti-ACA legislation is symbolic, something like Senate Bill 362 – which requires health care navigators to pay annual fees and undergo credit and background checks – could impede people’s access to health coverage by setting up administrative roadblocks. She accused Republicans of treating uninsured Kansans like “political pawns.”
But Republicans say they are trying to protect Kansans from what they view as a bad law.
“I am solidly against Obamacare, but it’s law right now. And so my job as a state legislator is making sure we’re protecting the consumers of Kansas and making sure they’re not getting hijacked by criminals,” said Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, a member of the Public Health and Welfare Committee. He said the navigator bill, which has passed the Senate and been sent to the House, would ensure that Kansans could trust the people taking down their private health information.
“In my opinion, they’re not doing their jobs at the federal level right now so the states have to come in and make sure that we’re protecting consumers the best that we can,” LaTurner said.
On the Senate floor last week, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, contended that Obamacare creates “a permanent underclass” that lacks “incentive to work” shortly before the Senate approved a bill that was amended to stop the state from expanding Medicaid.
Some Democrats have grown fed up with what they see as pandering to the Republican base at the expense of work on other issues.
In a letter to the committee, Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said many important issues “languish ignored in our bill books while precious Session days slip away with nothing worth hearing scheduled.”
Haley, an attorney, emphasized that the health care law has been upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. “It is regrettable that the Committee’s time and taxpayers dollars are wasted beyond that simple truth,” he said.
Kelly Arnold, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, contends that the Affordable Care Act is relevant to state elections because the law leaves a lot of responsibilities to state government officials.
For example, the decision on whether to expand Medicaid is left up to a state’s governor. Expanding Medicaid would cost the state millions in the long run even if the initial years of an expansion are fully funded by the federal government, Arnold said.
Same fight as in D.C.
The efforts of Republicans to fight the health care law in Topeka mirror what is happening in Washington, where the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has voted 51 times against the act.
U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, praised Kansas legislators for taking similar stances against the health care law.
Nationwide, “Obamacare” is polling dismally. According to March polls by Rasmussen, 56 percent of likely voters have a negative opinion of the health care law and 77 percent believe it will cost more than official estimates. On top of that, 33 percent of voters say they have been “hurt” by the law.
Such views pose a challenge for Kansas Democrats, who hope to sway moderate Republican voters. Nationwide, 80 percent of Republican voters expect health care quality to go down as a result of the law, according to Rasmussen.
“In pure politics in Kansas, if you’re a Republican who doesn’t want a Democrat to win, one strategy is don’t let them be Kansas Democrats. Let them be considered Democrats, national Democrats. Tie them into the national scene,” said Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University.
Republicans have had success in Kansas elections since 2008 by tying Democratic candidates to Obama, he said. And the Affordable Care Act is so linked to the president in the public’s consciousness that it becomes an easy issue to focus on in campaigns.
“Essentially, in campaign politics, if something works, you ride it until it doesn’t,” Beatty added.
Kensinger calls November’s election a choice of “Kansas way versus the Obama way.”
“Democrats wanted Obamacare in Kansas early,” he said. “They wanted Kansas to be an early innovator state. They wanted Obamacare in Kansas a year before the rest of the country. Even Barack Obama doesn’t want Obamacare in the country now. He’s delaying it! Kansas Democrats wanted it early.”
Chris Pumpelly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, the likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, called the discussion of the Affordable Care Act an attempt to distract from the state’s economy, school finance and the governor’s “reckless tax policy.”
Davis elaborated on that point, saying the focus on health care is an attempt “to try and mislead voters into thinking this election is about something that it isn’t about.”
Arnold, the state Republican Party chair, has a different view.
“This is what the voters are asking about,” he said.