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Kansas Medicaid Expansion Fails To Get A Vote, But Supporters Threaten Budget To Force One

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Demonstrators greeted lawmakers at the Capitol in Topeka on Wednesday. A proposal for expanding Medicaid lacked the votes needed to force an up-or-down roll call in the Senate.

Supporters of expanding Medicaid in Kansas proved Wednesday they’ve got the votes in the Legislature — if they can get a vote.

But they lacked enough lawmakers on their side to bypass Republican leadership and force that vote.

At stake is whether the state would spend about $50 million a year in money from Kansas taxpayers to draw more than $900 million from federal taxpayers to cover another 130,000 low-income people with Medicaid.

The proposal anchored Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s campaign for office last year. It’s widely supported by Democrats in the Legislature — and a significant number of Republicans. It passed the Kansas House in March.

But it’s been bottled up in a Senate committee ever since.

On Wednesday, expansion supporters in the Senate failed in an attempt to pry the bill loose. They needed 24 votes to prevail on the procedural motion. They got 23.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party before the start of the session, said the refusal by Republican leaders to allow a vote on expansion “is abhorrent to me and should be to the entire state.”

“Kansans have lost today,” she said.

Republican leaders resisting the push all but said they’d let a vote go through next year — but only after they’re convinced the state can afford the cost and if the coverage would only go to people without private coverage and who are willing to work.

“I’m doing what I think is the right thing,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said.

Denning and Senate President Susan Wagle won’t clear the way for an up-or-down vote until they get that compromise.

Still, those determined to continue the fight found some reason for encouragement. They demonstrated they have more than the 21 votes needed to pass the governor’s expansion bill if they can somehow force a vote. If.

With the session in its final weeks, that’s going to be difficult. Wagle and Denning appear steadfast.

To demonstrate his willingness to ready a compromise bill for lawmakers to consider next year, Denning didn’t take a position on the procedural motion.

“I vote ‘pass’ because I’m not saying no, I’m saying this policy isn’t ready,” Denning said in explaining his vote to colleagues.

Legislative supporters of expansion say there’s no reason to wait. The governor’s expansion bill, they say, is similar to one that passed in 2017 but was vetoed by Republican then-Gov. Sam Brownback.

“It’s too important to wait another year,” said Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat. “It’s not a new policy, we don’t need more time to study it.”

Parker is part of a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the House threatening to block passage of a budget until Senate leaders relent and allow a vote on expansion.

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “Every procedural tool whether it’s the budget or anything else in the rulebook is in play.”

In recent weeks, advocacy organizations pushing for expansion have also tried to turn up the heat by sending volunteers door-to-door in Denning’s and Wagle’s districts.

Janet Stanley, a Wichita nurse, said Wagle is entitled to her position on expansion but shouldn’t be allowed to prevent others from representing their constituents.

“It greatly upsets me,” Stanley said. “We have representatives who we have sent to represent us and they should be allowed to vote on this issue.”

Kelly is also frustrated.

“A few members of the Senate leadership should not be allowed to block an initiative that will save lives, save money and that 77% of Kansans support,” Kelly said recently, referring to one of several recent polls on the issue.

Expansion would extend Medicaid eligibility to Kansans making less than 138% of the federal poverty line, about $35,000 a year for a family of four.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for 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 to ksnewsservice.org.

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.
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