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Kansas Opioid Task Force Members Angered By Refusal To Discuss Medicaid Expansion

Sen. Barbara Bollier, left, a Mission Hills Republican, and Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, a Wichita Democrat, talking strategy after a meeting of the Substance Use Disorder Task Force on Thursday.
Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Sen. Barbara Bollier, left, a Mission Hills Republican, and Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, a Wichita Democrat, talking strategy after a meeting of the Substance Use Disorder Task Force on Thursday.

Several members of a task force formed by Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer to address the opioid crisis claim his refusal to consider Medicaid expansion undermines their work.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican and retired physician from Mission Hills, called expansion and the increased federal funding it would trigger critical to implementing many of the recommendations being considered by the group.

“Everybody in that room, with possible exception of two or three, knows that expanding Medicaid would help us pay for the services we need to deal with this crisis,” Bollier said Thursday after the group’s most recent meeting.

But she said Greg Lakin, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment official leading the task force, has made expansion off limits for discussion.

“Because the governor doesn’t support it ... we’re essentially not allowed to make that recommendation,” Bollier said. She said “it’s very possible” that members who disagree will issue a competing set of recommendations that include expansion.

Sheldon Weisgrau, a policy advisor to the pro-Medicaid expansion advocacy group Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, called the task force “a farce” in a series of tweets sent during Thursday’s meeting.

Lakin, the state's chief medical officer, bristled at the contention that he imposed what amounts to a gag order. He insisted the directives were necessary to keep members focused on developing a targeted set of affordable and politically viable policy recommendations.

“There are a million different subjects and everybody’s got their own agenda,” Lakin said. For instance, he said also discouraged discussion of medical marijuana.

“I’m just trying to keep us on task,” he said.

After years of fruitless advocacy, the Kansas Hospital Association and organizations belonging to the alliance pushed an expansion bill through the Legislature in 2016. But then-Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the measure and lawmakers failed by a few votes to override him.

Expansion advocates hoped that Colyer’s desire for a fresh start after serving for seven years as Brownback’s lieutenant governor would make him open to compromise on the issue.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Colyer, a Republican running to keep the office, quickly reiterated his opposition and lawmakers backed away from plans to force another showdown on the issue.

Current eligibility for KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, is limited to children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and low-income seniors in need of nursing home care.

Single adults without children aren’t eligible for KanCare regardless of income. Parents can qualify, but only if they earn less than a third of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is less than $10,000 a year.

Expansion would make all Kansans who earn up to 138 percent of the poverty level eligible. That’s about $17,000 for an individual and roughly $34,000 for a family of four.

About 150,000 Kansans — mostly low-income adults — currently fall in what is known as the “Medicaid gap.” They’re ineligible for KanCare but unable to afford private coverage.

Colyer has said he favors helping low-income Kansans get better jobs rather than increasing their dependency on government. 

The task force, officially known as the Substance Use Disorder Task Force,  is scheduled to deliver its recommendations to the governor by Sept. 1.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

Copyright 2018 KCUR 89.3

Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KCUR 89.3. He is the managing director of KCUR's Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations across Kansas.