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Kansas Medicaid Expansion Supporters Booted From Health Committee

Kansas Legislature

Three Republicans will not be returning to the House Health and Human Services Committee next year.

The reason: Their support for Medicaid expansion.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a conservative Republican from Stilwell, has removed Rep. Susan Concannon of Beloit, Rep. Barbara Bollier of Mission Hills and Rep. Don Hill of Emporia from the panel and given them new assignments. All three are moderate Republicans. 

“It’s heartbreaking because these are smart, well-versed in health issues, hard-working members of the committee,” said Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, the ranking Democrat on the health committee. 

Ward called the purge “a desperate attempt to try to stop a vote on Medicaid expansion.”

Concannon, the former director of the Mitchell County Regional Medical Foundation, is the committee’s vice chairwoman and was former committee chairman David Crum’s preferred replacement when he retired from the Legislature in 2014.

Hill is a pharmacist and Bollier is a retired physician.

The changes will reduce the health care expertise on the committee, Bollier said.

“I really believe that as governments legislate health care policy that experts with experience should be at the table helping to shape that policy,” she said. “We will still be actively participating to the best of our ability, but we won’t be able to contribute to committee discussions.”

The changes appeared to be part of a major shake-up of committee assignments ahead of the upcoming session and 2016 elections in which all 165 seats in the House and Senate will be contested. 

In a statement issued through his spokesperson late Wednesday, Merrick confirmed that the reorganization of the health panel was tied to the expansion issue. 

“Kansans oppose expanding Obamacare, a program that has busted budget after budget in states that have expanded it,” Merrick said. “I will continue to fight to protect Kansans from the disastrous effects of Obamacare.”

Polls conducted by the Kansas Hospital Association have consistently shown that a majority of Kansans favor expanding KanCare, the name given to Kansas’ Medicaid program when it was privatized in 2013. The most recent, conducted in April, showed that 64 percent of likely Kansas voters supported expanding KanCare eligibility, including 58 percent of the Republicans surveyed.

Support increased to 69 percent when respondents were told that expansion would attract more than $2 billion in additional federal funding to the state. Support declined to 58 percent when surveyors made it clear expansion was a part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. 

While it’s the “speaker’s prerogative” to make committee assignments, Bollier said the politics underlying the changes made to the health committee should concern voters.

“From the people’s perspective, when you try to silence voices a red flag should be raised about democracy and what it means,” she said. “This is my sixth year in the Legislature, and I have never seen upheaval like this.”

The recent closure of Mercy Hospital in Independence intensified the expansion debate and prompted some legislative opponents to reconsider their positions. Senate Vice President Jeff King, a Republican whose southeast Kansas district includes Independence, is now urging consideration of the kind of conservative expansion plan adopted in Indiana, another so-called “red state” with a conservative governor and Legislature.

“Saying ‘no’ to everything has to stop being a viable political option because there are real lives being affected,” King said at a recent KanCare expansion forum in Wichita. 

Expansion would extend KanCare coverage to non-disabled adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level: annually $16,105 for an individual and $32,913 for a family of four. Currently Kansas adults are eligible for coverage only if they have dependent children and earn less than 33 percent of FPL: $7,870 for a family of four. 

Most of the approximately 425,000 Kansans now covered by KanCare are low-income children, new mothers, people with disabilities or elderly adults needing long-term care who have exhausted their personal resources. 

Editor’s note: The KanCare expansion forum in Wichita was sponsored in part by the Kansas Health Foundation, which provides funding to the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service. KHI News Service is a partner in Heartland Health Monitor.

Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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