Editorials

Kansas GOP leaders’ strategy for Medicaid expansion talks: Stall, play games, plan stunts

Could Medicaid expansion save Kansas’ rural hospitals?

Kansas is one of 14 states that has yet to expand Medicaid, something proponents say could be part of the solution for rural health care.
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Kansas is one of 14 states that has yet to expand Medicaid, something proponents say could be part of the solution for rural health care.

If Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate thought they could defeat Medicaid expansion, they’d put it to an up-or-down vote.

Apparently, they don’t, can’t and won’t, though. So the plan instead seems to be to delay as long as possible, playing games and pulling stunts.

The inexcusable but completely predictable effect of that tactic is to keep some 150,000 Kansans uninsured for another year.

One other less expected result, though, is that Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning now has a new Democratic opponent who’s running on this issue in increasingly diverse and moderate Johnson County.

Hours after a Medicaid expansion meeting that included Denning, other Republican leaders and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly went so far off the rails that Democrats are convinced they were set up, Rep. Cindy Holscher of Olathe announced she would run for Denning’s seat.

“Tens of thousands of Kansans desperately need medical care, and the senator has refused to move forward on expansion, which has passed in the House this year and was built into the governor’s budget,” she said in a statement.

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Denning put out a statement, too, saying he’d promised Kelly that they could have an expansion bill ready for debate in January of 2020, but “Governor Kelly wants Medicaid expansion so bad in her first year that she is willing to get it bad.”

It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize that there could be a non-political reason to want coverage for Kansans sooner rather than later.

A member of Kelly’s staff who attended the meeting said the governor and her team considered it a working meeting — and one at which they hoped to reach a compromise. That’s why four hours were set aside for it.

The governor, this person said, came armed with data on costs and outcomes from other states, a list of all the compromises she had already agreed to on the issue and the willingness to entertain more places they might meet in the middle.

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Republican state Sen. Gene Sullentrop was engaged, but others, including House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, who is seen as the top opponent of expansion, brought up a series of “excuses” — some of them contradictory — about why it shouldn’t happen at all: Doctors wouldn’t be able to handle all of the new patients. Or maybe doctors wouldn’t take these patients at all. Or if they did, maybe they would be flooded with Missourians trying to get KanCare coverage, even though that wouldn’t be possible under federal law. Also, this expansion would grow the federal deficit.

Denning didn’t say a word until the very end, Kelly’s staff member said. That end came when Kelly asked if there was any specific concern or proposed area of compromise to discuss. There wasn’t.

Kelly’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, who was not at the meeting, said the governor had met twice before with Denning, one-on-one, on Medicaid expansion, and on one of those occasions she went to his office.

An email asking Denning for an interview on the meeting with Kelly was answered with another copy of his news release from the day before. An email to Hawkins wasn’t answered at all.

Maybe Denning will be re-elected no matter what he does, but Medicaid expansion is supported by a majority of Kansans. And next year’s race is not the point. Neither is whether continuing to oppose the expansion would put him in better position to take over for Senate President Susan Wagle if, as expected, she runs for the U.S. Senate seat that retiring Sen. Pat Roberts is leaving open.

Kansans who badly need the coverage have waited for years already, yet all Republican Senate leaders seem to be able to think about is their own advancement. Denning is gambling that voters will give him a pass, but why they’d show more compassion for his career than he has for their well-being isn’t clear.

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