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Politics shouldn’t be part of studying drug addiction

Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, D-Wichita.
Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, D-Wichita.

Substance use disorder — drug addiction — including opioid addiction, is a growing problem in Kansas. That’s why I was honored to be appointed to serve on the governor’s task force to address substance use disorders. When the task force was created, I had high hopes that bringing experts in the field together with legislators like me would produce a strong set of recommendations for addressing this critical health issue.

Regrettably, the task force has not lived up to its promise. A key component of effectively dealing with substance use disorder – or any other health issue – is availability of and access to treatment services. And vital to making treatment available and accessible is ensuring payment for these services.

Too many Kansans, however, do not have health insurance coverage and cannot get the health services they need. Many task force members, including me, have urged the committee to recommend expanding KanCare, the Kansas Medicaid program, to help fill this coverage gap.

However, Dr. Greg Lakin, the medical director of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and chair of the task force, has shut down discussion of KanCare expansion.

Expansion would provide health coverage to about 150,000 Kansans, making services for substance use disorder and mental health accessible to those who need them. Expanded coverage and payment will stimulate development of new services, especially in rural and other underserved areas of the state. This will increase opportunities for medical treatment of addictions.

Thirty-four other states have taken advantage of the opportunity to expand their Medicaid programs. These expansions have proven critical in addressing the opioid epidemic and other substance use disorders. Studies, including one recently conducted by University of Kansas researchers, also show when Medicaid is expanded more people get treatment, hospital costs for uncompensated care go down, and people stay in the workforce.

KanCare expansion is clearly one of the most effective evidence-based policies at our disposal to fight the opioid crisis.

Nevertheless, Lakin, appointed by Gov. Jeff Colyer, has decreed that KanCare expansion will not be part of the task force recommendations to the governor. He declared at the committee’s meeting last week that he would not permit any recommendations that would not be supported by the governor. Lakin has even gone as far as scrubbing the meeting minutes of any evidence that expansion has been advocated by members of the task force.

This is not the first time Colyer has been involved in prohibiting a state task force from addressing KanCare expansion. In 2016, then-Gov. Sam Brownback created a Rural Health Working Group to address problems with delivery of health care services in rural communities. As lieutenant governor, Colyer chaired the group. It, too, was prohibited from recommending KanCare expansion as part of its final report.

This is not what I or other task-force members signed on for. The people of Kansas deserve honesty and transparency from government and their elected officials. By ignoring the input of an expert panel and deciding in advance which policies are acceptable and which aren’t, Colyer and Lakin reveal that this task force is just another politically motivated exercise.

All Kansans, especially those who suffer from substance use disorders and opioid addiction, deserve better. Much better.

Elizabeth Bishop, D-Wichita, represents the 88th District in the Kansas House.

Substance use disorders

▪ To comment on substance use disorders, email chouchen@khi.org by the end of the day Thursday. Comments should pertain to provider education, prevention, treatment and recovery, law enforcement, and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.