Opinion: Stop partisan obstruction on health
Recently a coalition of Democrats and centrist Republicans steamrolled House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, the Kansas Legislature’s chief obstructionist to extending health care coverage to 130,000 low-income Kansans.
For the first 43 days of the current legislative session Hawkins, R-Wichita, along with House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, had blocked debate and hearings on Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposal to extend Medicaid coverage to uninsured Kansans. However, through crafty floor maneuvers, a bipartisan majority adopted the governor’s proposal and moved consideration of the issue over to the Kansas Senate.
The time has arrived for Republicans to stop obstructing majority will and negotiate a path forward on extending health care to uninsured Kansans. Their partisan blocking tactics have become a losing proposition, in terms of both public policy and politics.
Reputable surveys of Kansans consistently show strong support for extending health care access. They do so in part because more than nine in every 10 Kansans already have access to health care, mostly through their employers. Seniors, people with disabilities and the poorest Kansans have access through Medicare and Medicaid. Active military and veterans have access through Tricare. Others qualify for Obamacare.
Most Kansans with health care do support extending access to those without, particularly when federal grants — financed by tax dollars sent to the U.S. Treasury by Kansans — will cover 90 percent of the cost. The Kansas Hospital Association reports that Kansas has forfeited over $3.2 billion by not extending Medicaid when it became available five years ago. This loss of federal dollars has forced a number of rural communities to increase local sales and property taxes to maintain their local hospitals. Others have closed or face the threat of closure.
To do the right thing will require political courage. Resistant Republicans need to break loose from the shackles placed on them by organizations such as the Kansas State Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity. These organizations despise safety nets for vulnerable Kansans, and any legislator voting to extend access to health care will become a target for retaliation through disingenuous postcard attacks in upcoming elections.
Reluctant Republican legislators should remember, however, that Kelly convincingly won the governorship last fall by campaigning on two issues, education and health care. She won in many legislative districts now held by Republicans. Further, both Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach vigorously opposed expanding access to health care. And where are they now? Brownback left his governorship early with record-high disapproval. Kobach lost to Kelly with less than 43 percent of the vote.
Thirty-six states have either expanded health care through Medicaid or are in the process of doing so. Voters in three red states, including neighboring Nebraskans, enacted referenda on expansion last November. A Florida initiative for expansion is now underway.
Health care also became a significant national issue in midterm elections last fall, and congressional Republicans are now reassessing their negative posture on the issue after losing 40 seats, including one in Kansas, and control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
According to the Kansas Health Institute, 243,305 Kansans remain uninsured for health care. Extending access through Medicaid would cut that number by more than half. An additional 90,000 adults and 40,000 children would be covered, according to the Institute. If the governor’s proposal is adopted, 96 of every 100 Kansans would have access to health care.
Expanding health access through Medicaid is coming. If not this year, next year. Legislators should stop playing political games on health care and do the work they were elected to do, that is, legislating.
— H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and served with former Kansas Govs. Robert Bennett and Mike Hayden.