Topeka — Modest health care initiatives, including new programs to help poor Kansans buy insurance and to encourage small businesses to offer coverage to their workers, have been bundled into a package legislators expect to consider later this month.
House and Senate negotiators drafted a compromise bill Tuesday by taking pieces from different measures. They hoped their bill would benefit some of the state's 300,000 uninsured residents and spur more sweeping changes next year.
The House and Senate plan to vote on the compromise bill after legislators return from their annual spring break April 25.
"This is such a significant demonstration by both the House and the Senate that health reform is a priority," said Marcia Nielsen, executive director of the Kansas Health Policy Authority, an agency set up in 2005 to study health care issues and administer some state programs. "It's clearly a priority for the governor."
Sebelius, a Democrat, said last week that the Republican-controlled Legislature wasn't making enough progress on health care. But she praised lawmakers Tuesday.
"It's an important step not only to get some things done this year but also build a framework, really, for a more comprehensive plan," she said during an interview. "We're kind of positioned to be at the forefront of this effort, and I'm excited about that, but it takes the Legislature kind of coming together and moving ahead."
Both chambers had approved separate bills under which the state, starting in 2009, would give poor Kansans about $3,200 a year for health insurance. By 2012, the state would be providing $77 million annually to 24,000 people.
Legislative negotiators included the program in their compromise bill. They also included House-passed proposals to permit more Kansans to set aside pretax income to cover health expenses and to allow the state to make no-interest loans to help small businesses form associations to purchase health plans for their employees.
Also incorporated were a study of overhauling the Medicaid program serving about 250,000 needy Kansans, a proposal establishing an inspector general to root out Medicaid waste and fraud and a measure expanding health screenings for newborns.
Neither chamber responded to a call Sebelius made in January to draft a plan to eventually bring universal health coverage to Kansas. Nor has either one endorsed her $10 million initiative to expand Medicaid and cover all children under 6.
But the compromise bill includes reforms that will help uninsured Kansans and families struggling to pay medical bills or insurance premiums, said Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, a physician and one of the negotiators.
Barnett, while campaigning unsuccessfully for governor last year, proposed creating a state "connector," a central agency through which Kansans could purchase health insurance. The compromise bill mandates a study of the idea.
"It sets the stage for broader health care reform," Barnett said. "I think it's a very significant package."
Some House Republicans wanted to overhaul Medicaid by converting it from a program that pays directly for medical services into one that helps needy Kansans buy insurance. Sebelius questioned whether the plan is realistic, and GOP leaders backed away from the idea in favor of a Medicaid study.