Yael T. Abouhalkah

Kansas City’s costly health levy is the most abused tax at City Hall

John W. Bluford was the center of attention during his long and mostly successful tenure as president and CEO of Truman Medical Centers. But his plans to raise money for indigent care funding did not always go smoothly.
John W. Bluford was the center of attention during his long and mostly successful tenure as president and CEO of Truman Medical Centers. But his plans to raise money for indigent care funding did not always go smoothly. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s health levy is the most abused tax at City Hall. This long-term problem affects tens of thousands of indigent patients while being a slap in the face to voters.

Take a look at a few numbers.

In the 1988 fiscal year, Truman Medical Center — by far the largest area provider of health care services for poor people — got $18 million from the city. Smaller safety-net agencies got $1 million. The levy generated $8 million of that money, while the city added $11 million in general funds.

City officials and others then mounted campaigns in 1989 and again in 2005, seeking large property tax increases to purportedly bolster health care for poor people. Compassionate voters have more than tripled the levy in that time.

The health levy now reaps $50 million a year from taxpayers — more than three times what it did in 1988 after taking inflation into account.

Yet in the just-announced 2016 fiscal year budget, Truman Medical Center would get only $24.3 million from the city — far less than the $36 million in inflation-adjusted dollars it would need to keep pace with its funding in 1988.

Here’s what has occurred: Over the years, city officials have taken advantage of the levy increases to divert millions of dollars from indigent care to pay for fire and health department expenses. City officials also stopped using general fund revenues for the Health Department, freeing up millions for other city agencies.

The scheme is still operating at City Hall, largely thanks to events when the levy was last hiked in 2005.

Mayor Kay Barnes and many other officials said more money was badly needed to pay for indigent care at Truman and neighborhood health-care clinics such as the Samuel U. Rogers Center as well as for better ambulance service.

“Save Lives!” was the hard-sell campaign slogan. Read one 2005 flier: “Without adequate funding, these health care safety net providers cannot possibly keep pace with the escalating costs of providing basic medical care and emergency services. Be a hero! Help save lives by voting YES.”

Truman and other agencies said they needed the money because the city was using millions of dollars from the existing levy to pay Health Department expenses.

So are safety-net providers now receiving more city money?

Before the last tax increase, Truman Medical Center got $23.3 million in the 2003 fiscal year. In the proposed 2016 budget, Truman is scheduled to receive $24.3 million, as noted earlier.

Even though the property tax is creating almost twice as much money as it did a decade ago, city funding for Truman has gone up a puny 5 percent. Take inflation into account and it has actually decreased.

Meanwhile, Truman served 23,500 Kansas City patients using health levy dollars last year, up from around 18,000 in the mid-2000s.

One more point: The city’s overall funding for Truman and the seven other health care providers in the new budget would be exactly the same amount as it was in 2003 — nearly $29 million.

Even more bad news arrived in late January, when City Hall stunned the agencies by taking $2 million in pledged funding for the current fiscal year away from them. Plus, the new budget calls for the $2 million hit to continue as the city tries to prop up the Fire Department’s financially struggling ambulance service.

The City Council ought to reverse the expected funding decrease, but that means battling the powerful Fire Department or hoping for a surge in ambulance revenues.

Agencies that care for indigent patients are frustrated and livid over the most recent events. The providers have tried to serve additional people by asking taxpayers for more money, only to find themselves largely stuck in place.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.

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