Topeka One of the most hotly contested primaries in this year's elections in Kansas is also the one drawing the least public attention.
Five Republicans are vying for the nomination to become the state's next insurance commissioner, replacing Republican Sandy Praeger of Lawrence, who is stepping down after three terms. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Dennis Anderson of Overland Park in the general election.
Praeger is currently the only moderate Republican holding statewide elected office and has been an outspoken supporter of an insurance program that most of the current candidates oppose: the federal health reform law known as the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
But Praeger says whoever is elected will soon learn there is a lot more to the office of insurance commissioner than Obamacare.
“First of all they need to recognize the most important part of the job is consumer protection and education and advocacy,” she said in a recent interview. “We regulate the companies in such a way that they adhere to our state laws and service the contracts appropriately, and pay claims appropriately.”
And with more than 57,000 Kansans now receiving health insurance through the program, she doubts whether anything will be done to repeal it in Kansas, no matter who is elected.
“I think it would be pretty unpopular to be advocating that those people not have that,” Praeger said.
The five Republicans vying for the GOP nomination to succeed her are Beverly Gossage, a Eudora insurance agent; state Sen. Clark Schultz of Lindsborg; David Powell, an insurance professional from El Dorado; Ken Selzer, a Leawood accountant and insurance executive; and Johnson County Commissioner John Toplikar, of Olathe.
Gossage boasts strong ties to the Lawrence community. She grew up in the family that owns Kastl Plumbing in Lawrence and taught at Deerfield school before going into the insurance business. She is now an independent agent and owns a company that specializes in health savings accounts.
Born in Wichita, she grew up in the Kansas City area. She earned an associate's degree from Ft. Scott Community College and later a bachelor's degree in education from Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg.
Gossage said she vehemently opposes the federal health care law and recently signed a pledge from the group Independent Women's Voice to work for its repeal. And she thinks there's a lot that a state insurance commissioner can do about it.
“The first thing we have to do is encourage the health care compact,” Gossage said, referring to a bill passed by the Kansas Legislature this year. That law seeks Congress' permission to form a group with other states to receive those states' share of federal health care spending as a block grant and administer it under their own laws, side-stepping the Affordable Care Act.
Gossage said she would use the office to advocate for congressional passage of a bill allowing that to happen.
Before he was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Senate this year, Clark Shultz served 17 years in the Kansas House, including 10 years as chairman of the House Insurance Committee. Outside the Legislature, he works as a compliance auditor for a national title insurance underwriter and is president of a title company in Wichita.
Of the five candidates, he has been the least vitriolic about the Affordable Care Act.
“Until Congress is able to stop Obamacare at the federal level, states must remain diligent in protecting their citizens,” Shultz said in a statement on his campaign website. “The insurance commissioner will be responsible for helping consumers through the many changes.”
Shultz agrees with Praeger that consumer protection is the top priority of the office, saying the “reason department exists is to protect Kansas consumers. Everything that's done — licensing agents; making sure policies sold are approved; making sure we have adequate reserves — all of that is making sure individuals are covered.”
But Shultz concedes that in candidate forums and town hall meetings on the campaign trail, questions about the Affordable Care Act come up frequently.
“If you're talking about changing the law, obviously it's a federal law. That will have to be initiated by Congress,” Shultz said. “The department, as I see it, is there to help if there are some rough corners in what Congress does.”
David Powell is an independent insurance agent in El Dorado and author of “ObamaCare Unwrapped,” an e-book published by Amazon, that is critical of the federal health care law.
“One of the big differences between me and the other candidates is I've read the health care law and wrote a book on it,” Powell said.
Powell ran for insurance commissioner in 2010, when he tried unsuccessfully to challenge Praeger in the Republican primary.
He said one of the biggest problems in the program is that people are asked to shop for health insurance themselves through an online “exchange” without the help of a qualified agent to guide them through the process, which means people run the risk of buying policies that don't fit their needs.
But Powell said that if elected, there are other insurance issues he wants to address besides the health care law, such as helping individuals whose homeowners policies are cancelled due to weather-related claims.
“There are lots of other issues that are more important than health care law,” he said.
Powell grew up in a military family and attended the University of Nebraska, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics. He attended graduate school at NU and Wayne State College. He also holds advanced college degree designations in several areas of the insurance industry.
Ken Selzer of Leawood is an accountant and executive managing editor with Aon Benfield, a London-based global insurance services firm with offices in Kansas City. He previously served on the Fairway City Council and is now making his first run for statewide office.
Selzer said there are other issues such as affordability and availability for homeowners insurance, and minimum limits on auto insurance. But he said issues about health insurance are paramount in the election.
“The big one right now is Obamacare and health insurance,” he said.
Selzer grew up on a family farm inear Goessel in Marion County, and graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in accounting. He later earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of Southern California.
Selzer said he opposes expanding Medicaid. That was originally mandated under the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court made it optional when it ruled that Congress lacks constitutional authority to impose such a mandate on states.
“I think many people who would receive Medicaid in an expansion, many of them have health insurance in the private market already through their employer,” he said. “Many who don't have access already are able-bodied working adults.”
John Toplikar is a Johnson County commissioner and former state representative from Olathe. He also served previously on the Olathe City Council.
Of the five candidates, he is the only one who does not have a campaign website. He did not return calls requesting an interview.
His campaign does have a Facebook page, which says he voted “no” on every proposed tax increase he has faced, and pledges to continue his cause to cut wasteful spending.
In a candidate survey filled out for KSN-TV in Wichita and posted on the station's website, Toplikar vowed to oppose the Affordable Care Act in any way possible.
“I will use all the power and authority vested in the Kansas Insurance Commissioner’s office to oppose and repeal this law,” Toplikar wrote. “I will continue to work with the Kansas Attorney General in determining what we can do to fight the implementation of the ACA and its new taxes.”