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Gov. Laura Kelly failed to expand Medicaid in Kansas. Now she's appealing directly to voters

Governor Laura Kelly chairing a meeting of the State Finance Council.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Gov. Laura Kelly during the Kansas State Finance Council meeting Wednesday where she and legislative leaders approved incentives to draw a company to the state.

For five years, the Republican-controlled legislature has thwarted Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's efforts to pass Medicaid expansion, which is overwhelmingly supported by Kansas voters. Kelly is pushing for it once again in the upcoming legislative session, and she hopes it will become a major issue for the 2024 elections.

OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Despite facing defeat in each of the last five legislative sessions, Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly remains resolute in her mission to secure Medicaid expansion.

Kelly is gearing up for another battle in the upcoming session, this time with a strategy aimed at rallying public support and increasing pressure on Republican lawmakers who are all up for reelection in 2024.

“We have tried five other ways of getting Medicaid expanded,” Kelly laughed at a recent roundtable discussion with local health care and economic leaders in Overland Park.

Kelly is undertaking a new approach by taking her message directly to voters and local leaders. She has embarked on a comprehensive media and in-person tour of the state, vowing to make at least one stop a week this fall leading up to the start of the session in January.

Republican legislative leaders have made it clear that expansion is a non-starter, even declaring that compromises with Kelly securing their own legislative priorities are firmly off the table.

“I have principles, and my principle says no to Medicaid expansion for a lot of reasons,” Republican House Speaker Dan Hawkins said.

Kelly knows that she must find a way to break through the wall of opposition coming from Republican leadership.

“It’s very clear to me now that while there are a number of rank-and-file legislators who would like to support Medicaid expansion, they’re not being given that opportunity by their leadership,” Kelly said.

At a roundtable event in Wichita last week, Kelly was joined by Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn, an expansion supporter. McGinn voiced her frustration with Republican leadership and its decision to block the legislation.

“The problem is that we’re not having the conversations. The conversations are being blocked from coming to the floor,” McGinn said. “If it is such a bad idea, why can’t we have the debate?”

Before the Overland Park roundtable, the governor made an appearance at a Johnson County Commission meeting. The commissioners approved a proclamation in support of expansion. Kelly said she is grateful the commission was willing to go on record with their support.

“They are an influential group of folks here who can put some pressure on the legislators who will be able to push to vote on Medicaid expansion,” Kelly said. “What we want to do is empower our communities to then empower their legislators to force the issue on the leadership and demand leadership give them an opportunity to vote on Medicaid expansion.”

Republic Senate President Ty Masterson is one of the leaders who has vowed to block a vote on expansion. He contends that it would not expand services to those who need it but would expand welfare.

“It is creating an expansion of the welfare state to able-bodied adults at a time when we need more people working,” Masterson said.

But some business leaders disagree. Kevin Walker, of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce, said Kansas employers do need more people in the workforce, but expansion is a tool that will help them attract those workers.

“States that have been able to move forward with expansion, they are in some cases able to offer a benefits package that is better than what some of our employers can offer,” Walker said. “It’s presenting real challenges for us in terms of competing for workers. It’s putting us at a disadvantage.”

Kelly is also armed with the knowledge that expansion continues to be overwhelmingly popular among Kansans. A new public opinion survey released last week by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University shows that 70% of Kansans support expanding Medicaid, including more than half of Republicans in the state. Less than 10% of those surveyed expressed opposition.

“Kansans want this, and I think that if we do not get it done this next legislative session it will be the number one issue going into the November 2024 elections,” Kelly said.

 Joe Blubaugh reports on the Kansas Statehouse and government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can email him at jblubaugh@ku.edu.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link toksnewsservice.org.

Joe Blubaugh is a former news broadcaster, retired military veteran and former communications official (Public Information Officer) for two different state agencies. He was the communications secretary for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and served as a communications director for the Kansas Department of Transportation's (KDOT) northeast Kansas district. He currently resides in Silver Lake, just outside of Topeka.
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