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Jim McLean: They're Talking About Your Health Coverage In The Hallways of The Kansas Statehouse

Crysta Henthorne
Kansas News Service

The Kansas Legislature is in the meat of its 2019 session. Not quite halfway through, but well into the “getting down to business” part.

As such, there are consequential conversations happening throughout the Statehouse. Some occur in hearing rooms. But far more take place out of public view — in offices, hallways and the many convenient alcoves tucked into the building’s less-trafficked spaces.

Lawmakers and lobbyists use these encounters to compare notes. Form alliances. Plot strategy and strike deals that determine the course of the session and the fate of issues that in one way or another affect us all.

So, from here on in, I’m going to use this space to highlight events — big and small — that offer clues about where things are headed on the issues dominating this year’s session.

Let’s start with Medicaid expansion. Whether Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will succeed in convincing lawmakers to extend health care benefits to tens of thousands of low-income Kansans who today aren’t eligible for them. Or, whether she’ll even get a chance to make her case.

She won’t if House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins gets his way. The Wichita Republican launched a series of weekly videos on social media aimed at countering the arguments advanced by the Kansas Hospital Association and the dozens of other groups advocating for expansion.

Shot with two cameras and professionally edited, the first video features Hawkins seated at his desk in the majority leader’s office giving a quick overview of the populations currently served by KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program. Pregnant women, new mothers, children in low-income families along with disabled Kansans and elderly people who can’t afford nursing home care.

Expansion, he explains, would extend taxpayer-funded coverage to a new population of low-income but “able-bodied adults.” People he suggests who may be less deserving because they could qualify for highly subsidized private coverage if they worked more than 30 hours a week in a minimum-wage job.

“I don’t think most people, when they understand that, really want that to happen,” Hawkins said.

In other words, polls that consistently show large majorities of Kansans favor expansion would show the reverse if more Kansans really understood the issue.

Expansion supporters like Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Olathe Democrat, are frustrated that Kelly’s election has so far failed to change anything about the expansion debate. It’s failed to convince Republican leaders that they’re risking anything by blocking a vote on the issue.

“It almost feels like we’re still in the Brownback era,” Holscher said, referring to former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback who vetoed an expansion bill in 2017.

“The plea has been from the general public ‘let’s turn the page on those years,’ but the majority party doesn’t want to do that,” she said.

At the same time that they are stonewalling expansion, GOP leaders are pushing a bill that would allow the Kansas Farm Bureau to sell health coverage free of all state and federal insurance regulations.

The bill would turn back the clock to the days when insurance companies could deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions or charge more - sometimes a lot more - to cover them.

Republicans in the Kansas Senate defeated Democratic amendments that would have required the ag organization cover people with preexisting conditions before approving the bill 28 to 11.

Backers say the bill would at least provide healthy members of farm and ranch families who can’t afford traditional insurance with alternative coverage that could be up to 30 percent cheaper.

Opponents argue it would set a dangerous precedent by allowing the powerful ag group to sell a product that violates all of the consumer protection rules established by the federal Affordable Care Act. Plus, they say, it would siphon healthy people from the general insurance pool and raise costs for everyone else.

With little chance of stopping the measure in the House, opponents are hoping Kelly will veto it.

If she does, and points to the preexisting condition issue as the reason, opponents may well be able to muster the votes to sustain her.

Here’s a clue as to why.

The Democratic amendment that would have required coverage of preexisting conditions failed 24-15. It takes 14 votes in the 40-member Senate to sustain a governor’s veto.

Assuming opponents could secure the support of Democratic Sen. Pat Pettey, who missed the vote on the amendment (a safe assumption) they could have as many as 16 votes to sustain a Kelly veto. 

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning’s opposition to the bill could also prove key. The Overland Park Republican voted against the measure (the only Republican to do so) because he saw the potency of the preexisting conditions issue in last year’s 3rd District congressional race.

Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder’s failure to stand up for those protections while voting repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Denning said, was a major reason for his lopsided defeat at the hands of Democratic newcomer Sharice Davids.

“That was one of the anchors around his neck,” Denning said, explaining that “everyone has a family member” with preexisting conditions.

A fear of anchors heavy enough to sink their electoral chances could prove just as motivating to state lawmakers.

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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