Sebelius will ask for 50-cent increase in cigarette tax to help pay for health care reforms

State leaders say proposal to help insure low-income Kansans would again fail in Legislature

? With the number of uninsured Kansans increasing, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday said she would again ask the Legislature to approve a package of health care reforms that includes a 50-cent increase in the cigarette tax.

“We’ll put that right back on the table,” she said, referring to recommendations made by the Kansas Health Policy Authority.

Legislative leaders said Sebelius will probably get the same answer as before: no way.

House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, criticized the proposal, saying, “My guess is if the cigarette tax was passed, the money would be spent on something else.”

Even one of Sebelius’ fellow Democrats, House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg, said an increase in the cigarette tax to help provide health insurance to extremely low-income Kansans was probably a nonstarter.

He said raising the Kansas cigarette tax from its current rate of 79 cents per pack to $1.29 per pack would hurt Kansas retailers who operate near bordering states. Missouri’s cigarette tax is 17 cents per pack.

“That’s one of the challenges of that policy,” he said.

But McKinney urged the Kansas Health Policy Authority and lawmakers to continue working on reforms.

“The Health Policy Authority has credibility and expertise. Sometimes it takes a few years,” he said.

He suggested one of the KHPA proposals to provide assistance to low-income Kansans to purchase private insurance should be done first as a pilot project so that lawmakers will get “comfortable” with the idea.

During the last session, the KHPA’s major recommendations went nowhere.

Now Kansas is one of only 10 states where the ranks of the uninsured is on the rise. The number of uninsured Kansans has increased to 12.5 percent in 2006-07 from 11.3 percent in 2005-06, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That means about 340,000 Kansans have no health insurance.

Sebelius said lawmakers should abide by the KHPA recommendations, noting that the Legislature helped create the agency and charged it with producing reforms.

“Unfortunately, although the Legislature asked for the plan, got the plan, and it would’ve been funded with an additional stream of revenue, they decided to take it off the table from the outset,” Sebelius said. “So I think we are seeing some of the results.

“The results should not be surprising, but they are very alarming to a lot of Kansas families.”