Politics & Government

Kansas House sends Medicaid expansion bill to Senate panel

Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, speaks to the Kansas House after a vote on Medicaid expansion.
Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, speaks to the Kansas House after a vote on Medicaid expansion. The Wichita Eagle

A bill to expand Medicaid services in Kansas won approval in the House on Thursday after years of effort by advocates.

The vote was 81-44, a strong show of support for expansion but not enough to override a potential veto from Gov. Sam Brownback, who opposes it. The bill still must go to the Senate.

Medicaid, called KanCare in Kansas, is the government insurance program for people who have low incomes or who are disabled.

Hospitals and health groups have pushed for years for the state to expand eligibility to more than 150,000 Kansans under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Kansas is among nearly 20 states that have resisted expanding the federal program.

“There are thousands of hard-working Kansans that deserve access to health care,” said Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, contending Medicaid expansion could be done responsibly in Kansas.

There are thousands of hard-working Kansans that deserve access to health care.

Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison

The proposal would establish a health insurance program in Kansas for people who make less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

The federal government would pay for most of the costs. Advocates say many of those federal dollars would help hospitals across the state, particularly those in rural areas vulnerable to closing.

Opponents cite concerns about costs and point to congressional efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Brownback has opposed expanding Medicaid throughout his tenure, pointing mainly to the cost.

“Kansas should not tie itself to this failed program of the past just before its inevitable demise,” he said in a statement earlier this month.

House Minority Leader Rep. Jim Ward, the Wichita Democrat who pushed earlier in the week for the House to debate Medicaid expansion, said it was an “incredible opportunity” to boost economic development in Kansas.

He suggested a potential Brownback veto could “alienate” the Legislature further and draw more lawmakers toward the side of expansion.

“The governor is our best friend in this,” Ward said.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, has opposed Medicaid expansion as the chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee. He said paying for an expanded Medicaid program would not be sustainable if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed by Congress.

It will place a financial burden on taxpayers who are already under attack.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita

“We know that Medicaid changes are coming,” Hawkins said in a written explanation. “It will place a financial burden on taxpayers who are already under attack.”

The Medicaid expansion bill had been tabled in a committee at the beginning of the week. It was added to HB 2044 in an amendment on Wednesday, where it got initial House approval by an 83-40 vote.

David Jordan, executive director of Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, credited public support for expansion and phone calls made to state legislators this session for the victory.

“We couldn’t be more appreciative of the legislators who stood up and voted for their constituents,” Jordan said. “We still have to work in the Senate. I know that we’re ready.”

Senate President and Wichita Republican Susan Wagle’s office said the bill will be referred to the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Those committee members will decide whether the bill gets sent to the full Senate.

Hearings are tentatively scheduled for March 20 and 21 for lawmakers to hear from expansion proponents and opponents, respectively.

The Kansas governor has continued to stand by KanCare, the state's privatized Medicaid program, after a critical federal review.

The Lt. Gov. of Kansas said Friday that Medicaid expansion would not solve rural health issues in the state.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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