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Archive for Thursday, April 26, 2007

Health initiatives close to passage

April 26, 2007

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— New programs for helping poor Kansans buy health insurance and encouraging small businesses to cover their workers won final legislative approval Wednesday.

The House voted 120-0 and the Senate, 38-0, to approve compromise legislation bundling modest health care initiatives into a single package. The measure went to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

"Health care access and affordability are longtime priorities of this governor and she's happy to see the first step cleared in this process," said spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran.

The measure falls short of answering Sebelius' call in January for a plan to eventually bring universal health coverage to Kansas. But supporters believe it will set up a debate over more sweeping proposals next year and help some of the state's 300,000 or so uninsured residents get coverage.

The Kansas Health Policy Authority, an agency set up in 2005 to review health care issues and administer some state programs, plans to continue discussing proposals this year for improving access to care and controlling increases in insurance costs. Also, a joint legislative committee plans its own debate.

"This bill is important because Kansans need to have a better health system, and that means more access to health care, more affordable health insurance premiums and more of a focus of primary care and prevention," said Marcia Nielsen, the authority's executive director. "This bill is a significant down payment to do just that."

House and Senate negotiators pieced together the legislation from parts of other bills before legislators started their annual spring break April 4. Lawmakers reconvened Wednesday to wrap up their business for the year.

"It sets the groundwork for something we'll work on for the next several years and provides the track we need to be on," Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Cummings.

Key provisions in the bill create a new program under which, starting in 2009, the state 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.

The only note of caution came from Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, who worried about the cost of the program. She still voted for the bill.

The bill also would 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.

In addition, the measure initiates a study of overhauling the Medicaid program serving about 250,000 needy Kansans, establishes an inspector general to root out Medicaid waste and fraud and expands health screenings for newborns.

Rep. Jeff Colyer, R-Overland Park, a physician who had a big hand in drafting the legislation, said the bill is a step toward a new "major concept," moving people from Medicaid and being uninsured into the private market.

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