Government & Politics

Once stagnant, Medicaid expansion progresses in Kansas Legislature

Proponents of expanding KanCare, the privatized Medicaid program in Kansas, think it should happen regardless of what changes to healthcare are coming at the national level.

“I don’t think anybody knows what the feds are going to do,” said Tom Bell, president and CEO of the Kansas Hospital Association.

Health care advocates testified to a Senate panel Monday morning in favor of HB 2044, legislation that would expand health coverage to thousands of low-income Kansans if passed into law.

Expansion supporters testified Monday morning, with opponents of the bill scheduled to do the same on Tuesday.

Lawmakers on opposite sides of the issue said Monday they expect the expansion effort to pass out of the committee and head to the Senate floor. It has already passed the House.

Suzan Emmons, a business owner from Allen County in southeast Kansas, said she is one of the people who falls into the state’s coverage gap. She makes too much to get KanCare, but not enough to qualify for the healthcare marketplace.

She lives in fear, she told lawmakers, because she does not have insurance.

“One emergency room visit or hospital stay could mean I would lose everything,” she said.

Medical professionals and representatives of the Kansas Hospital Association and the Kansas Medical Society also told lawmakers they supported the bill.

Choosing to not expand Medicaid before was a missed opportunity and has put a financial strain on the state’s medical industry, Via Christi Health CEO Michael Mullins said.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who supports expansion, said she’s happy to be at a stage where the Senate can talk about the issue in committee.

“Quite honestly, the real challenge is a man named Sam Brownback,” Bollier said of the bill’s chances if it continues to move forward.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer have maintained they do not support expanding KanCare.

Last month, Brownback said in a statement that expansion was not affordable and called it “bad for Kansas.”

Other conservative lawmakers, including Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, have also said they do not support the expansion bill.

Masterson said he feels like states are being forced by the federal government to expand Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, states can expand Medicaid with the help of federal money.

“Is it our role?” Masterson said after Monday’s hearing. “It feels like extortion from the federal government to force us to participate in a federal program, expansion, versus them just changing it and allow our people to get on the exchange.”

Less than a month ago, KanCare expansion looked to be moving nowhere.

The House health committee had voted to table the bill rather than pass it out to the floor, effectively killing the bill for the 2017 session.

But an effort on the House floor to amend the bill into another piece of legislation succeeded, and Medicaid expansion passed the House on a final vote of 81 to 44.

The bill would expand the KanCare program to roughly 150,000 more people, supporters have told lawmakers.

That expansion would come from giving coverage to people under the age of 65 who made 133 percent of the federal poverty level or less, according to the bill.

The KanCare program already covers more than 400,000 people, according to the state.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Republican from Topeka who heads the Senate health committee, said she expects the panel to debate the bill later this week.

“Looking at the makeup of this committee it clearly passes out,” Masterson said.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw