Wichita lawmaker floats idea of selling KU Hospital

TOPEKA -- Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, this evening offered an amendment to study the viability of selling the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City.

But he withdrew it after House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, called it a "bad idea" that wasn't discussed with House Republicans until the late hours of a nine-hour budget debate.

The idea has been floated in the past, but has never gained traction.

"Should the state be in the hospital business?" Suellentrop asked. "We have a robust medical community in Wichita that works just fine, privately owned. Could that not be the same occurrence here?"

He said lawmakers need more facts in order to decide, and he stressed it would be a multiple-year decision process. "It may prove that we should keep it, and I'd be fine with that," he said.

O'Neal said Suellentrop didn't share his proposed amendment with the Republican caucus, where lawmakers usually map out their day and share amendments they plan to propose.

"This is a big deal," O'Neal said. "This is neither the time nor the place... to be deciding on a issue that does not need to be fixed."

"Bad idea, bad time, so vote against it," he said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said sending a signal about the state selling the hospital "would be an awful decision" for the House to make with National Cancer Institute designation pending for the University of Kansas Medical Center. He said that would provide Kansans with cutting-edge cancer treatment and generate economic development.

Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said KU School of Medicine could probably survive without the hospital, but he said it would damage it. He said it's a profit center for the state.

"To jeopardize that would make no sense," he said. "It would make about as much sense to sell the WSU baseball team."

Suellentrop said many people have ties to KU and are emotionally attached to the name.

"If it were Fred Brown Hospital, I think it would take on a different character," he said.

Wichita Republican Rep. Brenda Landwehr said the hospital has nothing to do with the National Cancer Institute designation.

Landwehr said a study may find selling the hospital isn't a good idea.

"It's very possible that it is an asset that we should keep and perhaps even improve on," she said. She said the KU School of Medicine in Wichita faced a funding crisis years ago and now gets funding from two private hospitals in the city and is doing well.

"We have a very good model down in Wichita with Via Christi and with Wesley, and the pass-through Medicaid dollars they give to the medical school, which means less funds the state has to put in," she said. "So it might be better if we had a private entity and we looked at a funding mechanism like we have down there and the relationship we have."

The House earlier this week approved a bill that would, among other things, bar residents at the University of Kansas Hospital from performing abortions on state property or on state time.

As that debate wound through the Statehouse throughout the session this year, it sparked questions about whether the medical center would lose accreditation of its obstetrics and gynecological program. Lawmakers altered the bill so that its medical residents could do abortions off-site, on their own time, for a year.

Suellentrop and Landwehr said it's not about abortion.

"What this study may prove is that we should, in fact, sell this facility," he said.

The idea isn't going away.

Suellentrop said he plans to keep the discussion going.

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