Gov. Kelly makes Winfield stop launch point for statewide tour aimed to up pressure for Medicaid expansion

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Updated Thursday morning with video

WINFIELD — Gov. Laura Kelly told the crowd in front of William Newton Hospital Wednesday afternoon she’s not giving up on her effort to expand Medicaid in Kansas, and that her continued advocacy for it is no longer a campaign talking point.

“My determination to expand Medicaid has nothing to do with trying to score political points or pull one over on my opponents,” Kelly, who was reelected for her final term in 2022, said. “I will never be on a ballot again.

“Expanding Medicaid is not a win for Laura Kelly. It is a win for hospitals, for workers, for our businesses, our families and our children across the state. I refuse to give up on this fight… I’d like to remind those in the legislature that your colleagues did not elect you, your constituents did. And I implore you to start taking positions that reflect their wants and their needs — even if those positions are at odds with (legislative) leadership.”

Kelly was in Winfield to launch her “Healthy Workers, Healthy Economy” tour as an effort to rally Kansans statewide in support of her top priority this upcoming legislative session, Medicaid expansion.

Kelly said 78% of Kansans support expansion and the tour is meant to pressure state lawmakers to force the issue to a vote in the spring.

“Expanding Medicaid and ensuring that every Kansan has access to affordable, high-quality health care is the smartest, sanest way to keep our state moving forward,” Kelly said. “When the legislature reconvenes in January, I will propose Medicaid expansion for the sixth time so Kansas can achieve a healthier workforce and a healthier economy.

“I encourage every Kansan to call their legislator and tell them to demand that legislative leadership give them a chance to vote for Medicaid expansion.”

William Newton Hospital CEO Brian Barta made opening remarks.

Barta said uncompensated care costs the hospital $2.5 million annually and that he supports Medicaid expansion.

“Kansas is one of 10 states that continues to lag behind the rest of our country to expand Medicaid and address healthcare inequity for many hardworking Kansans,” Barta said. “We greatly appreciate Governor Kelly’s persistence and dedication to move Kansas toward passing commonsense legislation to utilize federal funding that will cover 90% of the cost to expand Medicaid.

“It is estimated that Medicaid expansion will help over 150,000 Kansans and continued failure by the state legislature to support Medicaid expansion undermines the physical, emotional, and economic health for all of Kansas.”

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Kelly, who took questions from the podium following her speech, was asked why she started her tour in Winfield.

“I really just couldn’t think of any better place to come to kick off this tour,” she answered. “One, it’s a very important region within our state, south central Kansas, where there are excellent healthcare services being provided, both in Wichita and in some of our rural communities, but those healthcare services need the support that we can provide by expanding Medicaid.

“I think Brian’s job would be a whole lot easier if he had fewer uncompensated care patients.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly delivers a speech advocating for Medicaid expansion in the legislature in front of William Newton Hospital in Winfield Wednesday. Watching on from L-R: WNH CEO Brian Barta, Alex Gottlob and Chandra Dickson. (Photo by Brady Bauman)

State Sen. Larry Alley and State Rep. Web Roth — both of Winfield — were there for the governor’s remarks, which also included prior speeches in support of expansion from local business owner Alex Gottlob of Gottlob Lawn & Landscape and Chandra Dickson, a Wichita resident whose mother, Jo Anne, passed away in 2016 from cancer.

Dickson said her mother worked as a waitress and did other jobs to make ends meet, but made slightly too much to qualify for KanCare, the program Kansas uses to administer Medicaid. She said without health insurance, her mother’s treatment for her cancer was delayed until it was too late and would have benefited from Medicaid expansion.

“Watching my mother be unable to access health care and then ultimately die because of lack of access to lifesaving treatment was one of the most painful experiences of my life,” Dickson, at times overcome with emotion, said from the podium in front of WNH. “It wasn’t fair to her or my family.

“I want to see Medicaid expansion in Kansas because everyone should have access to health care no matter their life circumstances or ability to pay. Expanding Medicaid is the right thing to do for the state and its citizens.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, left, shakes hands with Dared Price of Graves Drug Wednesday in Winfield. (Photo courtesy Governor’s Office)

According to the governor’s office, census data shows that nearly 140,000 Kansans work but don’t have health insurance. The Kansas Department of Labor’s latest unemployment rate was 2.7 percent as of August — unchanged from July.

Kelly said expanding Medicaid would also have a positive effect on Kansas’ economy, creating 23,000 new jobs and creating a healthier workforce.

Alley told Cowley Post at the conclusion of the event he recognizes struggles hospitals face when it comes to their bottom lines — especially rural hospitals — but said he didn’t believe Medicaid expansion is a top concern for voters.

“The number one issue in Kansas is taxes,” Alley said. “The number one issue in Kansas is let’s get these people gainfully employed and we got to have more people working.”

Alley

Alley also referenced the state’s budget surplus.

“We’re sitting on $4 billion-worth of money that should be returned, part of it anyway, to the people,” Alley said. “We need to send that back to the people. I think the governor needs to look at those things. She’s been preaching and doing a good job telling everybody about Medicaid expansion for seven years.”

Alley, the majority leader in the Kansas Senate, said in his talks with hospitals across the state — including discussions with Barta at WNH — a big concern with Medicaid is reimbursement rates that vary depending on the size of the hospital/community, but are set at the federal level.

Alley said he prefers locally-operated and paid-for direct care clinics rather than opting into expanding the federal Medicaid system — despite that, by law, 90 percent of the costs to expand Medicaid would be funded by the federal government with the state providing 10 percent of funds to match.

When asked when a vote on expansion could return to the senate floor again — expansion passed both chambers in Topeka in 2017 before it was vetoed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback — Alley said the door could open again, but had no specifics.

“I think there could be a possibility,” he said. “There’s some details that have to be worked out — but when you go to their door, when you go talk in town halls, it’s not Medicaid expansion. It’s taxes. It’s property taxes. It’s income taxes, taxes on Social Security — that’s the No. 1 issue to people in Kansas.”

Following Barta’s opening comments, Gottlob told the crowd about the challenges his businesses faces regarding healthcare in Kansas as it is today.

“As an employer of both full time and seasonal employees, my wife and I see first-hand the challenges related to health care that our employees face and how it oftentimes affects their performance at work,” Gottlob said. “Insurance costs grow more and more out of reach for small companies such as ours. Medicaid expansion would not only benefit individuals but has the ability to bridge the gap when small businesses are not able to provide insurance.”

Roth

Roth, who was elected to the Kansas House 79th District seat last November, told Cowley Post after the event his questions about expansion remain.

“My thoughts are just like they were in the primary and all through this thing,” he said. “I’m open into hearing both sides and getting the right numbers. When I started (my term) there was 4,000 people on a waiting list that had been approved for Medicaid. Now there’s 7,000. Can we fix that?”

Like Alley, Roth also expressed concern when it comes to adequate reimbursement rates and hospital staffing to meet demand for the potential of a larger Medicaid pool.

“I think if we get some of this stuff tweaked we can move ahead,” Roth said.

After the event, Gottlob, who employs 18 or more full time employees during the busiest time of the lawn and landscape season, told Cowley Post it’s difficult to find private group insurance plans that makes financial sense for his business or are affordable for a wide range of employees.

He said the governor’s office reached out to him to speak from a small business owner’s perspective prior to Wednesday via a recommendation from a member of the hospital’s board.

Gottlob said his employees, like other service-based businesses, often lack health insurance and feel too intimated by the costs, restrictions and hurdles of the current system — especially for those who currently do not qualify for Medicaid.

Gottlob believes lawmakers against expansion who focus more on complications than solutions are disconnected on the issue.

“I think that’s a cop out — that’s an argument to a lot of things, ‘Oh that’s complicated. I won’t worry about it and we’ll put it on the shelf,"” Gottlob said. “I think it really boils down to, ‘I’m in good health and therefore I’m not worried about it.’

“That’s not what they’re saying out loud, but I think unconsciously there is a little bit of that disregard.”

Alex Gottlob, owner of Gottlob Lawn & Landscape in Winfield, speaks in favor of Medicaid expansion during Gov. Laura Kelly’s stop Wednesday in Winfield at William Newton Hospital. (Photo by Brady Bauman)

Gottlob said he agreed with the governor’s economic perspective when it comes to passing expansion.

“I think that those conversations have to be had in how healthcare impacts the economics of Kansas — for small businesses, for the state budget, for hospitals being able to keep their doors open, all of that, in combination — let’s not forget — it’s about people’s health,” he said. “It’s about having healthy people that are able to take care of themselves and take care of others and be productive in the workforce, and in life in general, whether they’re a stay-at-home mom or a CEO or a small business owner.

Gottlob said he doesn’t understand why the state hasn’t taken advantage of how the cost of expansion is structured.

According to the governor’s office, Kansas has left more than $6.5 billion federal dollars on the table while waiting for Medicaid expansion, including nearly $80 million so far in 2023.

“We’re telling the federal government, ‘Don’t write us a huge check,"” Gottlob said. “Yes, Kansas is responsible for 10 percent, but I think that’s an extremely small investment in order to receive 90 percent.”

The governor’s office says seven rural hospitals in Kansan have closed since states have had the option to expand Medicaid, and 60 out of Kansas’ 104 remaining rural hospitals are at risk of shutting their doors — a higher percentage than any other state in the country.

Gottlob said expansion would mean more Kansans would have health insurance and more business for hospitals like WNH.

Gottlob said whatever helps keep rural hospitals open is good for everyone.

“Even the wealthiest people will eventually need a hospital, whether for themselves or their loved ones, so it’s just important that we have some empathy and that we think about things beyond ourselves,” Gottlob said. “And from an economic standpoint, like I said, from a dollars and cents standpoint, I think this makes a lot of sense.

“From everything that I’ve read and all my knowledge that I have on the subject, I think it’s pretty common sense decision for me.”

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