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Legislators Get To Rebut Article Questioning Kansas Health Care Compact

A group of Republican legislators who supported a health care compact bill has been granted space in a Johnson County newsletter for an editorial article saying the compact saves Medicare.

The editorial, to run in the October edition of The Best Times, is meant to counter a piece critical of the compact written by members of the county's commission on aging, a group of eight senior volunteers appointed by Johnson County commissioners.

Johnson County legislators who supported the compact confronted aging commission members on Sept. 15 with grievances about the article’s content and about it being published one month before the general election, predicting it would be used by opponents of Gov. Sam Brownback.

Johnson County Commissioner James Allen said he had an advance copy of the newsletter, which is distributed to all Johnson County residents over age 60. He said the commission on aging’s article is headlined “Kansas on the road to eliminating Medicare?” while the one submitted by the legislators is headlined “Kansas saves Medicare with innovative Obamacare fix.”

The rebuttal was approved by Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias, who informed Johnson County commissioners of the content change via email last week.

At the county commission’s meeting last week, Commissioner John Toplikar asked Zacharias if such counterpoints would become a fixture in The Best Times.

“Moving forward, can we assume that if there are disagreements with what is coming out in this that there will be a response page?” Toplikar asked.

Zacharias said that was yet to be determined.

“I think this is a unique situation, from my perspective. Given the level of excitement, I guess, and the large appeal from a large number of our (legislative) delegation, I felt it was appropriate to give them space in this particular magazine,” Zacharias said. “Whether or not that is a continual effort, we’ll have to debate and you’ll have to give us some guidance on that.”

Zacharias said he would prefer not to turn The Best Times into a “controversial publication,” because throughout its 30-year history it has been a source for county residents to read about “people that have spent a lifetime in their careers and gardening issues and so forth.”

Following the bylaws

During the public comments section of last week’s county commission meeting, Peg Deaton, a member of the commission on aging, told county commissioners that she and her colleagues were acting within their appointed duties when they wrote the article criticizing the compact.

“On this latest media we are following the bylaws that the board of county commissioners have down on paper and one other law: God’s law for helping older people,” Deaton said.

Tom Raby, an Olathe resident, asked the commission to consider a “public proclamation” denouncing the pressure that the legislators put on the aging commission members to pull or change their article.

“As a citizen, I resent being bullied by some group of legislators from Topeka,” Raby said. “Even if I agree with their legislative action, I don’t like the idea of being bullied.”

At the Sept. 15 meeting between legislators and the aging commission, Sen. Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, said the article would strain relations between the groups. House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell, told the head of the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging that “this is going to set you guys back.”

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee, advised the commission to have county lawyers vet the accuracy of their article and Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Republican from Leawood, said that legislators should be allowed to publish a rebuttal in the same edition.

Kansas legislators voted last session to join the compact. It has been approved by nine states seeking freedom from all federal health regulations and the ability to receive money for programs like Medicaid and Medicare as no-strings-attached block grants.

The compact’s ability to eliminate or salvage Medicare is purely theoretical at this point, because it needs approval by Congress, which has yet to seriously discuss it.

But the debate about it in Kansas has grown since conservative Republicans passed House Bill 2553 and Brownback signed it in April.

Supporters presented the bill as a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s health reforms, but Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger and the retiree group AARP testified against it, citing its potential to change Medicare, which currently serves about 450,000 Kansans.

The Johnson County aging commission members picked up on those concerns in forming their opinion piece. They were not mollified at the Sept. 15 meeting by the arguments of the legislators, some of whom said they had no intention of touching Medicare, and others who said they would only take over Medicare to save it from a debt-ridden federal government.

An end to controversy?

Several Johnson County commissioners contacted this week, including commission chairman Ed Eilert, said they supported the commission on aging members.

“The piece that had been written by the advisory board of the Area Agency on Aging, as I read through it, the questions that were raised were fairly consistent with questions that have been raised by most people that followed that issue and had concerns about it,” Eilert said. “I don’t think there was anything necessarily new.”

Eilert said he was unsure whether allowing legislators to run the rebuttal article would end the controversy.

Commissioner C. Edward Peterson said he thought the legislators jumped to conclusions about the commission on aging’s article from the beginning.

“They initially tried to prevent the article from running, and they hadn’t even seen it yet,” Peterson said. “I found that offensive.”

Allen said he thought the original article was appropriate whether readers were for or against the compact, because even the possibility of the state taking over Medicare would be of huge interest to seniors.

“If Kansas does their own (Medicare), the assumption everything’s going to be seamless — that’s a leap of faith to me, frankly,” Allen said. “I’d like to see the foundation where Kansas thinks they can do it better than the federal government. That is a very massive undertaking, and you’re dealing with something very critical for seniors.”

Commissioner Steven Klika said the controversy over the article had some questioning his choices of appointees to the commission on aging. But he said he stood firmly behind Karen Weber, who is an elder-care attorney, and Sheryl Spalding, a former Republican legislator.

“If they want to sit there and challenge the Legislature on certain bills that were passed, they have every right, just like they have the right to challenge us on certain issues,” Klika said. “If they don’t get the answers or they’re not comfortable with the answers, they need to keep pursuing it until they can be comfortable because this is a group that has to articulate that to the aging population.”

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said the county commission had done all it could to be even-handed, but, like Eilert, he was not sure it would fully resolve the controversy.

“We tried to respect both the commission on aging and the Legislature’s concerns with the publication, so if it goes further either one of those parties will have to initiate that,” Ashcraft said. “We’ll continue to work with the Legislature and do everything we can to make sure we have a good and mutually supportive relationship.”

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