Groups aim to put Medicaid expansion at top of 2016 election agenda, say state has needlessly given up over a billion dollars

photo by: Peter Hancock

David Jordan, head of the newly formed Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, kicks off a campaign to make Medicaid expansion a top issue in the 2016 elections. Behind him is a display that constantly updates, showing how much federal money Kansas has foregone because it hasn't expanded Medicaid.

A coalition of civic and business groups, faith-based organizations and health care advocates said Monday that they hope to build support for expanding the state’s Medicaid program during the upcoming 2016 legislative campaigns.

“There will be significant investments in public education of candidates, public education of legislators, and also engagement of communities around this issue,” said David Jordan, executive director of the newly formed Alliance for a Healthy Kansas.

The group includes several businesses, civic and faith-based organizations from throughout Kansas, as well as health care advocacy groups, who held a rally and news conference at the Statehouse to kick off their campaign.

Jordan said he and other members of the coalition were frustrated that Kansas lawmakers completed the 2016 session last week without even voting on a proposal to expand Medicaid.

“Yet another year has gone by without expanding KanCare,” he said. “Our state cannot afford to delay action any longer.”

Kansas currently has one of the most restrictive Medicaid eligibility systems in the country. Enrollment is limited to pregnant women, children, seniors and disabled individuals who meet strict income guidelines.

Adult parents and caregivers can qualify if their monthly income does not exceed roughly one-third of the federal poverty level: $637 a month for a single parent with two children. Working-age adults with no dependents are ineligible for Medicaid in Kansas.

However, under the federal Affordable Care Act, states are allowed to expand eligibility to all individuals with incomes up to 135 percent of the poverty level, or $27,216 for a family of three, and the federal government would pay at least 95 percent of the additional cost.

But Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP leaders in the Legislature, who refer to that program as “Obamacare,” have refused to go along, arguing that could bankrupt the state if the federal government doesn’t keep its end of the bargain.

“I think it’s really critical that we cast off this great hysteria of Obamacare. I’m sick of hearing it,” said Dr. Eric Voth, vice president of primary care at Stormont-Vail Healthcare in Topeka. “There are so many elements of health care that have nothing to do with Obamacare that it’s time we embrace the things that will move us forward.”

Voth then referred to a video display projected on the wall of a Statehouse committee room that constantly updates, second by second, how much federal aid the state has foregone since 2014 by not expanding Medicaid. It showed the amount in excess of $1.1 billion.

“Can you imagine us turning down military funds, highway funds, some other funds, to the tune of $1.1 billion?” he asked. “It’s time we get a grip.”

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature this year squashed attempts to allow a Medicaid expansion bill to be debated.

Before the session began, House Speaker Ray Merrick, of Stilwell, removed several members of the Health and Human Services Committee who had supported expansion, replacing them with House members who opposed it.

And later in the session, an attempt by Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, to add Medicaid expansion onto an appropriations bill was ruled out of order.

In the Senate, President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, removed Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook from her post as chair of the Public Health and Welfare Committee after Pilcher-Cook offered a similar amendment during floor debate. That amendment also was ruled out of order.

Wagle noted at the time that Pilcher-Cook strongly opposes Medicaid expansion, and she suggested that the amendment was only offered as a ploy to force an early vote on the issue. But despite Wagle’s assurance that there would be open debate and a vote on the issue, no Medicaid expansion bill was considered in the Senate.

Jordan would not disclose how big of a campaign war chest the group plans to have during the campaign. But David Toland, who heads the group Thrive Allen County, a member of the coalition, said it will have financial backing from major health care foundations.

“We’ve had great support from the REACH Healthcare Foundation, Sunflower Foundation, Healthcare Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the Kansas Health Foundation, all of whom are committed to this issue,” he said.