Kansas City voters will decide Tuesday whether to extend a portion of the city’s health care property tax for another nine years, to provide continued care to the city’s poorest residents.
By LYNN HORSLEY
The Kansas City Star
The 22-cent levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $43 a year, not counting cars or other personal property.
It would raise about $15 million per year. Of that, about $10.2 million would go to Truman Medical Centers, $2.4 million to the city’s ambulance service, and more than $2.4 million to five clinics: Northland Health Care Access ($181,116), the Cabot Clinic on the West Side ($337,400), Rodgers and Swope Health Services ($817,986 for each) and KC CARE (formerly the free health clinic, $338,037).
Proponents say the money is essential even when many more people are supposed to have health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act. That’s because Obamacare was never intended to cover everyone, and the Missouri General Assembly so far has declined to expand the Medicaid rolls to cover more people.
“If history has proven one thing, there is a high degree of uncertainty in terms of how this is going to eventually play out, given the complexity of it,” said Alex Wendel, a spokesman for the health levy campaign. “Here’s an opportunity for Kansas Citians to do what we’ve always done, which is to take care of our own and not necessarily leave that in the hands of Washington and Jefferson City to do that for us.”
There is no organized opposition to the measure, which is supported by organizations including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Council and Freedom Inc , as well as several prominent law firms, construction firms and other businesses.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t skeptics and critics, who say now is not the time to extend another property tax.
Missouri state Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican from Kansas City, North, said he was just beginning to study the ballot measure. But he said it may be difficult to persuade voters to renew the tax at the same level for another nine years.
“I would certainly have looked at a shorter sunset and probably a lower rate,” he said. “Anything tied to health care and taxes right now is probably a tough sell.”
John Bluford, Truman’s chief executive, points out that the city money is a small portion of Truman’s overall budget, but a crucial piece. He says it has helped Truman provide care to about 21,500 uninsured patients annually, and has helped Truman build new cardiology, diabetes and other labs over the past few years to improve the health of chronically ill patients.
“Truman Medical Centers is no longer just a safety net, it’s a quality net,” he said.
Bluford is especially worried that, under the federal health care law, Truman is slated within a few years to start losing $60 million in annual “disproportionate share” payments that it has been getting for serving a high percentage of uninsured patients.
The federal law anticipated the need for those dollars to cover the uninsured would go away because many more people would be covered by Medicaid. But so far, the Missouri legislature has had no appetite to expand the Medicaid rolls, so Truman could be in a serious budget crunch.
Without the local tax, Bluford warns that the quality of care could be affected, and Truman might have to cut some of its programs or turn some people away.
When the local levy was first approved in 2005, it did not have universal support. In fact, it failed with voters north of the Missouri River by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin. It passed citywide only because voters south of the river endorsed it by a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent.
Still, City Councilman Ed Ford, who represents the Northland, said that with the recession and job losses, the need is greater now than when the tax first passed.
Ford estimated that one in six Kansas City residents has no health insurance, including more than one in 10 residents in the Northland. He said many of those are served by the Northland Health Care Access clinics in Clay and Platte counties.
“I think Northlanders are compassionate folks, and even those who have health insurance understand the importance of having health coverage for everyone,” he said.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.