Government & Politics

Barnett blasts Medicaid expansion ‘gag order’ while Colyer says he gave no such order

Gov. Jeff Colyer’s campaign said the governor did not issue a “gag order” to a task force on substance-abuse disorders.
Gov. Jeff Colyer’s campaign said the governor did not issue a “gag order” to a task force on substance-abuse disorders.

With the Republican primary race for Kansas governor drawing to a close, Jim Barnett is trying one last time to make Medicaid expansion an issue.

Members of the Governor’s Task Force to Address Substance Use Disorders, including Mission Hills Republican Sen. Barbara Bollier, said last week they were frustrated that the chairman of the task force formed by Gov. Jeff Colyer has discouraged them from discussing expansion and kept any mention of it out of meeting minutes.

That led Barnett to say Monday that some of the best treatment options for opioid addiction would come through Medicaid expansion.

Taking it off the table as a policy for the task force to discuss is ridiculous, he said, and makes the entire process “a farce” and a waste of taxpayer money.

“In my opinion, it shows Gov. Colyer is just like Gov. (Sam) Brownback: It’s my way or the highway,” Barnett said. “It’s an ideological approach to governing that did not work and will not work.”

In a news release, Barnett said Colyer had issued a “gag order” to the task force that is “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!”

Colyer’s campaign didn’t immediately comment on Barnett’s statement beyond saying the governor did not issue a “gag order.”

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, is a highly charged political issue that has caused divisions within the Republican Party nationally. Kansas is one of 18 states, all led by Republicans, that have declined to expand Medicaid to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

High-profile Republicans in some other states, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have accepted expansion and tout it as crucial to stemming the opioid epidemic, but some Senate Republicans published a report earlier this year that found that Medicaid fraud was making the national opioid problem worse.

Colyer has staunchly opposed Medicaid expansion, as have most Kansas Republicans in leadership positions. Of the four top Republican candidates for governor, the only one who supports expansion is Barnett, who, like Colyer, is a physician and former legislator.

The substance abuse task force’s chairman, Kansas Department of Health and Environment chief medical officer Greg Lakin, said Colyer didn’t give the group any “gag order” on the topic, though.

Lakin, another physician and former Republican state lawmaker who was appointed by Brownback, said he’s limiting the scope of discussion to keep the task force on track.

“It was made out to be more of an issue than it was,” Lakin said. “A couple people brought it up, but most everybody understands we’re staying focused.”

Lakin said other topics he’s tried to steer clear of include legalizing medical marijuana and regulating legitimate opioid use for chronic pain.

But Bollier, who is also a physician, said that she thinks the task force can’t properly discuss substance abuse treatment without discussing Medicaid expansion.

Medicaid covers inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, as well as medications such as Suboxone that are prescribed to help people get off opioids without experiencing withdrawal.

A study published in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in 2016, non-elderly adults with opioid addiction were twice as likely to get treatment if they were on Medicaid than if they were uninsured or even had private insurance.

Bollier said she proposed Medicaid expansion to the task force as an alternative to a new federal program that allows states to use child welfare money to help parents struggling with substance abuse.

That money requires a 50 percent state match, she said, while Medicaid expansion at most requires states to kick in just 10 percent.

“Why would you do a 50-50 (match) when you could get a 90-10?” Bollier said.

The substance abuse task force has two more meetings scheduled before releasing its recommendations to Colyer in September.

Bollier won’t be a member for either of those meetings, though.

She found out last week that Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle had removed her from the task force, in addition to stripping her of a leadership position on the Senate health committee, because she endorsed a Democrat who is vying to unseat Republican congressman Kevin Yoder.

Wagle also removed Bollier from the joint committee that oversees Kansas’ privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, and a child welfare task force.

It’s ironic, Bollier said, because serving on both task forces has shown her how intertwined substance abuse and child welfare are.

“There’s this huge overlap between the need to treat people with substance use disorders and the need for foster care,” Bollier said.