Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday devoted as much attention to Medicaid expansion as any other issue.
“I’ve made no secret that expanding this program is one of my top priorities,” she said in her first State of the State address.
But no issue, including school funding, will prove to be as big a test for the new governor as this one. Conservative leaders in both the Kansas House and Senate have stacked committees that deal with this issue with anti-expansion lawmakers.
In the House, for instance, Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and an expansion proponent, was set to become chair of the health committee.
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Instead, House Speaker Ron Ryckman moved her off the committee entirely, and other Republicans hostile to the program were added. Leaders also have stacked the deck on the Senate side with new rules out Wednesday that will make it tougher to bring up the issue in committee.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Democrat who has championed expansion, was asked about the degree of difficulty of passing an expansion bill out of the Senate.
“Nearly impossible,” she said.
On the House side, advocates are calling the upcoming struggle “a battle royale.”
This, then, becomes the first significant leadership challenge of Kelly’s administration. And it is a whopper, even though backers of the program nearly got the measure past a Gov. Sam Brownback veto in 2017. This is a new year with a slightly more conservative Legislature and with leaders determined to crush this effort.
Kelly was straightforward Wednesday about how she’ll proceed. Next week, she plans to announce a bipartisan working group to craft a proposal. By Jan. 29, which happens to be Kansas Day, Kelly vowed that a plan to expand Medicaid will be before the Legislature.
“I can imagine no better way to celebrate our state’s 158th birthday than by embracing a policy that will make every Kansas community healthier, stronger and more secure,” she told lawmakers.
One way to achieve this will be to formulate a plan that is both revenue neutral and Kansas-centric, both of which are said to be goals of the new administration. The Kansas Hospital Association has issued a graphic showing that expansion can actually save the state money to the tune of $5 million in 2020.
When it comes to developing a Kansas-style plan, Democrats already are bracing for a proposal that includes work requirements and maintains the state’s Medicaid program, known as KanCare, as a private system. Those ideas would be tough for Democrats to swallow, but perhaps essential to getting a bill passed.
Polls say most Kansans support Medicaid expansion. Rural Kansas surely would benefit. The state is forfeiting hundreds of millions a year by not expanding. All those arguments have been made.
Now, Kelly must find a path forward.