Topeka Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Monday that the Republican-dominated Legislature is moving too slowly on health care issues, but GOP leaders argued they're making some progress on market-based reforms.
Sebelius criticized legislators most for not embracing her $4 million proposal to extend state health coverage to all children under age 6, an idea she also advanced unsuccessfully last year. She also called in January for legislators to draft a plan to eventually bring universal health insurance coverage to Kansas.
"I'm very disappointed that neither the House nor the Senate so far has stepped up to the plate and made the commitment to insure all Kansas children," she told reporters. "I say, 'Let's go. Let's roll up our sleeves and insure all kids."'
She made her remarks on the 71st day of lawmakers' annual session, out of 90 scheduled, when neither the House nor the Senate has considered any major health care legislation.
However, her comments came the same day a Senate committee endorsed a proposal that moves the state toward forming a clearinghouse through which Kansans would buy insurance. Also Monday, a task force recommended several health care initiatives to the Kansas Health Policy Authority that could be pursued this year.
Many Republicans don't like her proposal, which is designed to see that no child under 6 is uninsured. It would expand the Medicaid program for poor families and a health insurance program for children of working families.
"What's her plan, other than more socialized medicine?" asked Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, chairwoman of her chamber's Health Care Strategies Committee. "Her plan is more handouts."
Sebelius proposed spending an additional $4 million in state funds to expand Medicaid and the program for children of working families to all children under 6 and matching those dollars with $6 million in federal funds. But both the House and the Senate Ways and Means Committee didn't include the money in their proposed $12 billion budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Republicans, particularly in the House, have said such an expansion could prove far more expensive than advertised.
"Simply expanding Medicaid is not health care reform," said Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, a physician who ran unsuccessfully against Sebelius last year. "That's why her proposal has gone so slowly - and has failed."
Last year, as a candidate, Barnett proposed establishing a state "connector" through which groups and individuals would buy health insurance. Policies would be owned by individuals, who could take them from job to job.
Insurance companies balked at the idea, arguing it would increase premiums.
The bill endorsed Monday by Wagle's committee would have the Health Policy Authority study that issue to see whether costs actually would rise. Legislators created the authority in 2005 to study health issues in-depth and make policy recommendations.
"We'll move on it this summer and have a package here next year," Wagle said.
Sebelius acknowledged that the health authority is working on various proposals and that work on health care issues has been slowed by getting different parties, including consumers and employers, to buy into ideas.
But she added, "It's a little slower than I would like."
Business tax break
Businesses soon will see at least a 40 percent cut in payments they are required to make to the state to finance benefits for unemployed workers.
Sebelius signed a bill Monday providing $175 million in tax relief to businesses over the next two years.
The measure had been stalled in the Legislature over a proposal backed by Sebelius, her fellow Democrats and some Republicans to eliminate the week jobless workers must wait to receive their first unemployment checks. GOP leaders and business groups opposed the idea because it would consume $30 million over two years from funds businesses already have paid to the state.
Under a compromise approved unanimously by legislators last week, starting July 1, workers who are caught in mass layoffs won't have to wait an extra week for their first checks. For companies with 50 to 499 employees, one-third of the employees would have to be let go for it to be considered a mass layoff. For companies with 500 or more, 100 layoffs would be required.
Other workers still would see a week's delay, but three weeks later, they would have two checks bunched in one week. That would cost $20 million over two years.
"This bill is a good step for Kansans," Sebelius said as she signed the measure.
About 13,000 businesses wouldn't have to pay anything. An additional 19,000 would have their payment rates cut in half, and the remaining 19,000 would see their rates reduced 40 percent.
The reductions will show up in tax statements the Department of Labor will begin mailing next week.