Sounding anti-Obamacare themes, a crowded field seeks the Republican nomination to replace the Kansas state insurance commissioner, who has lost favor with her own party.
Five candidates, including two from Johnson County, want to take over for Sandy Praeger. The Republican is not running for a fourth term overseeing the agency that regulates insurance.
Praeger is a moderate who fell out of step with an increasingly conservative party after she emerged as a booster of the Affordable Care Act. Disenchanted with her party, Praeger last week endorsed Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Even as Praeger leaves office, her staff defends the department’s reputation as candidates crisscross the state contending that regulations apart from Obamacare are limiting insurance choices for consumers.
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A top lieutenant even admonished the five Republicans — Beverly Gossage, David Powell, Ken Selzer, Clark Shultz and John Toplikar — to learn more about the department before trying to change how it operates.
Gossage, of Eudora, is a health benefits consultant. Powell, of El Dorado, is an insurance agent. Selzer, of Leawood, is an accountant. Shultz, of Lindsborg, is a state senator. Toplikar, of Olathe, is a Johnson County commissioner and a former legislator.
Although there is little a state insurance commissioner can do to repeal or change a federal law, Obamacare is red meat for GOP primary voters.
“The voters care about it,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “You mention insurance and the first thing they ask is, ‘What’s your opinion of Obamacare?’ It becomes a litmus test.”
They go further than Obamacare, though. The hopefuls say they aim to improve the insurance climate in Kansas.
The candidates talk about breaking down barriers that they say impede insurance companies from doing business in Kansas or make it harder to offer different types of coverage that could reduce insurance costs.
The staff of the current insurance commissioner hotly disputes the idea that Kansas’ regulations limit insurance choices for consumers.
Kansas has 240 more insurers now than it did in 2003 when Praeger took office, said Assistant Insurance Commissioner Zac Anshutz.
“We have a robust insurance industry in Kansas,” Anshutz said in a email. “We believe the department maintains a balance between competitive business in the state and protecting our Kansas consumers.”
Anshutz scolded the candidates, saying he hopes they will take more time to understand the agency before proposing improvements.
“From our perspective, we’ve served the consumers and companies of Kansas very well, and that is something they should probably consider maintaining well into the future,” he said.
The winner of the Aug. 5 primary faces Democrat Dennis Anderson of Overland Park in the general election. Anderson’s family runs a business that trains insurance agents.
Here is a snapshot of each of the Republican candidates in the primary field:
Shultz, 57, was appointed to the state Senate this year after serving in the Kansas House since 1997. As a member of the House, Shultz headed the House Insurance Committee.
Shultz is concerned that insurance companies are being double taxed in Kansas. He points out they pay a tax on their premiums plus additional fees for regulatory programs run by the agency.
He wants to make sure that insurance companies are not paying twice to run Insurance Department programs.
Gossage, 64, brings an endorsement from former House speaker Newt Gingrich to establish her conservative credentials.
Touting her opposition to abortion and support for gun rights, Gossage is running hard against Obamacare. She promises to work with the state’s congressional delegation to “thwart this egregious legislation.”
Gossage’s priorities include shortening the time it takes for the Insurance Department to get new kinds of insurance approved.
The Insurance Department says it tries to get new products for homeowners and car insurance approved in less than 40 days, although sometimes their complexity can require as long as 60 days.
State law requires the department to approve new health insurance coverage within 30 days.
Selzer, 61, is a former Fairway councilman who works as an executive managing director for an insurance services provider.
Although he opposes Obamacare, Selzer emphasizes the importance of increasing insurance competition in the state.
“This job is so much greater than Obamacare,” Selzer said. “We need more competition so prices can be lower and coverages more expansive.”
Selzer contends that insurance companies, especially health care insurers, have been leaving the state for better regulatory climates.
A 2012 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that Kansas had one provider with 42 percent of the individual health insurance market and four others with at least a 5 percent market share. The foundation rated the Kansas health insurance market as highly concentrated.
Powell, 68, ran unsuccessfully against Praeger in the 2010 Republican primary. He finished with 37 percent of the vote.
He has been an insurance agent for 37 years and says he is the only candidate who has read the Affordable Care Act and written a book about the law. He believes he understands how to stop the law.
Powell wants to look at how insurance companies use credit scores to determine insurance rates, asking, “Why should your rates go up because you were late on a Sears payment?”
Toplikar, 58, is a Johnson County commissioner and a former state legislator representing part of Olathe.
Toplikar promises to fight government mandates like Obamacare. But he concedes it will take more than one elected official to dump the law.
The county commissioner argues he is the best candidate because he has no connection to the insurance industry.
“The insurance commissioner has to be a watchdog for the consumer,” Toplikar said. “I feel like I can be impartial, fair and neutral when it comes to policyholder disputes. I can better see both sides.”