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KanCare Expansion Supporters Target Key Lawmakers In Campaign To Override Brownback Veto

Kansas Office of the Governor
Gov. Brownback signs his veto of a Medicaid expansion bill Thursday.

Supporters of expanding Medicaid eligibility in Kansas are preparing to mount an intense lobbying campaign over the weekend to get the votes they need to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of an expansion bill.

The governor vetoed the bill on Thursday, citing concerns about the cost of expanding KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, to cover an estimated 180,000 additional low-income Kansans. He also objected to extending coverage to “able-bodied” adults as long as thousands of Kansans with disabilities remained on waiting lists for support services.

“Any attempt to expand this entitlement program should include a plan to eliminate the inherited waiting list for services to our disabled community … and have a neutral impact on the state budget,” Brownback said in his veto message. “This bill does not meet those requirements.”

Reacting to the message, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said the governor is unfairly pitting two groups of needy Kansans against one another.

“I’ve never heard a more dishonest statement than we just heard,” Ward said, fighting back his emotions during debate Thursday morning on the House floor after Brownback announced his veto. “The governor pits working poor against the disabled. He talks about cost without talking about benefits.”

Expansion supporters were able to delay a vote to override the governor’s veto by tabling the expansion bill Thursday. The vote is now expected to occur sometime next week.

That means groups belonging to the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, a pro-expansion coalition, will be active over the weekend, lobbying a handful of legislators to switch their votes.

“At the end of the day, this is about the governor,” said David Jordan, director of the coalition. “Are the legislators going to do the right thing and expand KanCare, or are they going to side with the governor and deny access to health care and deny their hospitals and other providers the payments they need to stay financially whole?”

The Sumner Regional Medical Center in Wellington is one of several Kansas hospitals struggling financially in part because of the state’s refusal to expand KanCare, which the Kansas Hospital Association estimates has cost providers nearly $1.8 billion in additional federal funding.

“We are one of, I think, 31 [Kansas] hospitals that were listed at risk for closure at the beginning of the year,” said Terry Deschaine, a member of the medical center’s board.

Credit Kansas News Service/File photo
Terry Deschaine of Sumner Regional Medical Center is one of several community leaders planning to meet Friday in Wellington with Sen. Larry Alley to discuss how KanCare expansion would help the hospital.

Recently, Deschaine said the hospital’s foundation and the city of Wellington helped administrators secure a $300,000 line of credit from a local bank so that they could cover operating expenses and meet the payroll.

“The financial challenges we’re facing are very significant,” Deschaine said, noting that expansion would generate an additional $750,000 a year in revenue for the medical center.

Deschaine is one of several community leaders planning to meet Friday in Wellington with Sen. Larry Alley, a first-term Republican from Winfield. They hope to persuade Alley, who voted against the expansion bill, to change his mind and vote to override the governor’s veto.

“At least we’ll be able to meet with him face-to-face and tell him our story and how critical it is that he sees the light,” Deschaine said.

Alley is open to the discussion but said the hospital’s continuing struggles aren’t reason enough to change his position on expansion.

“They’ve been in trouble for some time,” Alley said of the hospital. “And I don’t believe that this, right now, is the time to expand Medicaid because of the financial problems the state is having.”

Alley, like Brownback, doesn’t believe estimates compiled by the Kansas Hospital Association that show revenue and savings generated by expansion would more than cover the state’s share of the cost, 90 percent of which would be shouldered by the federal government. But he said he’s willing to be persuaded.

“I’m still open, but they’re going to have to do a good job providing that data,” he said.

Alley is one of 17 legislators that expansion advocates are targeting in this weekend’s lobbying effort, Jordan said.

“We’re hopeful that some of those legislators will change their minds,” he said. “I think we’re close, we’re three votes away in the House and two votes in the Senate.”

The House passed the expansion bill 81-44 in late February. It would take 84 votes to override the governor’s veto. In the Senate, where the bill passed 25-14 earlier this week, supporters will need 27 votes to override the veto.

Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.