Government & Politics

Advocates still pushing for Medicaid expansion but worry Colyer is ‘Brownback 2.0’

Kansas’ new governor, Jeff Colyer, has given little hope to supporters of Medicaid expansion.
Kansas’ new governor, Jeff Colyer, has given little hope to supporters of Medicaid expansion.

The governor’s name has changed, but those hoping to see Medicaid expansion in Kansas are already facing familiar opposition from Jeff Colyer’s administration.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion in Kansas testified this week at a Senate committee hearing in hopes that Colyer, Kansas’ new governor, will be more open to Medicaid expansion than the last. But Colyer has given no indication that he will be any different from his predecessor when it comes to Medicaid expansion.

“I’m not a supporter of Obamacare,” Colyer said just minutes after he became governor two weeks ago. “Let’s be clear.”

The ruby-red state gained national attention last year when the GOP-dominated Legislature passed Medicaid expansion despite Gov. Sam Brownback’s opposition. He quickly vetoed the bill, and the effort to overcome his opposition died several votes short in the Kansas House.

Kansans pushing to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 150,000 people say they’re hoping for a different outcome under Colyer.

“But unfortunately,” said Thea Perry, outreach director for the advocacy group LoudLight, “I think so far we have Brownback 2.0.”

The Affordable Care Act enabled states to expand Medicaid, which provides health coverage to the disabled and low-income families, to cover people who earn too little to buy insurance through the federal health care exchange but also earn too much to otherwise qualify for Medicaid.

Colyer was the Brownback administration’s chief critic of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Still, those hoping for expansion are pushing forward.

“Gov. Colyer is not Gov. Brownback,” said Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project, who has strongly advocated for expansion. “He hasn’t vetoed it yet, so I’m still hopeful. He has certainly given every indication and suggestion that he wants to avoid the issue, that he’s probably not in favor of it.”

The Lt. Gov. of Kansas said Friday that Medicaid expansion would not solve rural health issues in the state.

Amy Houston of Mulvane was 28 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That led to insurance struggles, she testified to lawmakers, and medical bills began to build. She said in her testimony she would eligible if Medicaid were expanded.

“Due to over $60,000 worth of medical debt, and not qualifying for bankruptcy, I had to stop going to the oncologist and start getting my life back in order,” she said in written testimony. “To this day I do not know the status of my health.”

She said this week she was waiting, and hoping, that Colyer will sign off on expansion. Her illness and treatment changed her life.

“It was exhausting. I was bone thin. I was 40 pounds lighter than I am now,” said Houston, now 37. “My hair had fallen out. I had skin rashes. My children were suffering.”

The renewed push for expansion comes as the state faces another trying year financially. Lawmakers are still trying to figure out a way to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to adequately fund Kansas schools, a struggle for legislators even after passing a tax increase over Brownback’s veto last year.

Jeff Anderson, acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, spoke against expansion during Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing, which drew a large crowd to the first floor of the Capitol.

“One consistent theme we have heard from our stakeholders is that at this time, we should not`make major changes to the Medicaid program until we get a better handle on our operational challenges that we face,” Anderson said.

Several lawmakers who have supported expansion in the past sit on the committee, including Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who like Colyer is a doctor.

“It’s very difficult to hear people who have health insurance stand up here and say that it doesn’t make any difference,” Bollier said toward the end of the hearing. “And I am ashamed as a physician that anyone would say that.”

Other Republicans who haven’t supported expansion in the past have said they see a similar situation to last year’s gubernatorial veto playing out.

“If it did pass, I would anticipate another veto,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. “I wouldn’t anticipate it being overridden.”

But the threat of a veto hasn’t drained the hope from some of those pushing for expansion.

“The more we talk about this, the more support we’re going to get,” Weisgrau said. “Which is why I think Gov. Colyer doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Perry, likewise, says she hasn’t given up on Colyer.

“He still has a chance to be a hero to all of these people,” she said.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw