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Hundreds Rally Against Closure Of Topeka Hospital At Center Of Medicaid Expansion Debate

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Hundreds of people attended a vigil Monday evening outside St. Francis Health in Topeka, a financially struggling hospital that is at the center of the Medicaid expansion debate in Kansas.

Several hundred people turned out Monday night to protest the possible closure of St. Francis Health in Topeka.

The financial struggles of the 378-bed hospital have taken center stage in the debate over whether to expand KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback recently vetoed an expansion bill that would have generated an additional $10 million a year in federal funding for St. Francis, according to the Kansas Hospital Association.

The association estimates that the state’s rejection of expansion has cost Kansas health care providers more than $1.8 billion over the past three years.

Carolyn Zimmerman of Topeka was among those at the vigil, where people lit candles, marched to the hospital’s main entrance and sang “Amazing Grace.”

“I hope it will make a difference,” Zimmerman said. “I do think it will demonstrate to the governor that he should be expanding Medicaid.”

Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Carolyn and John Zimmerman participated in Monday's vigil outside St. Francis Health in Topeka.

St. Francis was established in 1909 by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, an organization now known as SCL Health, based in Denver. Officials from SCL were in Topeka on Monday to meet with members of the St. Francis board, according to Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast.

Brian Newsome, a spokesperson for SCL, said in an email that he could not confirm the meeting.

“We have no announcement at this time but will keep our dedicated associates and physicians, and the community they serve, informed when we have definitive news to share,” Newsome said.

Brownback sent a news release Tuesday morning stating that Mike Slubowski, CEO of SCL Health, told him SCL wouldn’t make an announcement Tuesday. He said Slubowski committed to “work with us” to keep St. Francis open.

“I intend to hold Mr. Slubowski to his commitment and anticipate further negotiations in the coming days and weeks,” Brownback said. “As I have said previously, St. Francis is an important local and regional health care provider, and a significant Kansas charitable asset that has long served its stated mission of improving the health of those who are poor and vulnerable.”

Dr. Jacqueline Hyland, a St. Francis anesthesiologist, said at Monday’s vigil that the staff is in the dark about SCL’s plans.

“It’s been very quiet,” Hyland said. “But there are lots of rumors out there and fear that the hospital may close.”

Hyland was among many who said she hoped the show of community support would influence SCL’s decision about the hospital’s future.

“I hope that they see how important this hospital is to each individual who is out here showing their support,” she said.

Another employee, Anna Munns, organized the vigil. She has worked in the registration office for the past 17 years.

“I’m a very prayerful person, and I think God has a plan for the hospital,” Munns said. “I’m just hoping and praying that somebody steps in and does something.”

Opponents of Medicaid expansion insist it cannot fix the problems facing St. Francis and other struggling hospitals across the state, including those in Fort Scott and Wellington. But David Heinemann, a former Kansas legislator who attended the vigil, said he believes expansion could help stabilize many of the state’s troubled hospitals.

“I’m very hopeful that the Legislature will reconsider Medicaid expansion,” said Heinemann, a Republican who represented Garden City in the Kansas House from 1968 to 1995 but now lives in Topeka.

“We know in the legislative process that it’s never over until it’s over,” he said.

Earlier this month the House fell three votes short of overriding Brownback’s veto of the expansion bill.

Supporters will attempt to pass a new expansion bill when lawmakers return May 1 to wrap up the 2017 session. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, is optimistic that supporters will switch enough votes to pass the new bill with a veto-proof majority.

“I do think there’s a good chance of us flipping those votes,” Ward said.

Expansion would qualify all non-disabled Kansas adults earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level, annually about $16,642 for an individual and $33,465 for a family of four, for Medicaid coverage.

Expansion would make an estimated 300,000 additional Kansans eligible for coverage though only about 180,000 would initially enroll, according to estimates.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. 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 kcur.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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