By JIM MCLEAN & MEG WINGERTER
Advocates of expanding Medicaid eligibility are planning a second attempt to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of an expansion bill when lawmakers return in May to wrap up the 2017 session.
The first attempt failed in the Kansas House on Monday, when supporters came up three votes short of the 84 needed to override.
“The issue of expanding KanCare is too important to Kansans not to make another attempt to address this issue before the session ends,” said David Jordan, director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas coalition. “We see tremendous energy from supporters to find a solution this session. So, we’re going to exhaust all options possible to try to find a way to move forward.”
KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, currently covers approximately 425,000 Kansans, mostly children in low-income families, people with disabilities and low-income elderly Kansans who need nursing home care.
The expansion bill would extend coverage to an estimated 180,000 additional Kansans, mainly low-income adults.
The financial plight of several Kansas hospitals is adding urgency to the expansion issue.
SCL Health, the Denver-based Catholic health care organization that operates St. Francis Health in Topeka, has been seeking a buyer for the 378-bed hospital for almost a year. Multiple sources say the state’s rejection of Medicaid expansion is complicating negotiations with potential buyers.
Brian Newsome, spokesman for SCL Health, said he couldn’t comment on the status of those negotiations or the possibility that the hospital would close if a buyer can’t be found.
“Since this exploration began last year, we have been committed to a thoughtful and deliberate process, and that work continues,” he said in an email. “In the meantime, we remain resolutely focused on providing the quality, compassionate care for which St. Francis has become recognized.”
Any new owner would have to contend with a difficult financial situation. St. Francis Health lost money from 2012 to 2015, the most recent year with available tax filings. In 2015, its losses reached $12.5 million.
Expansion would generate an additional $9.9 million for the hospital in 2019, according to the Kansas Hospital Association.
Rep. Adam Lusker, a Democrat from Frontenac, said a hospital in his district also is at risk if the state doesn’t expand KanCare and start drawing down additional federal Medicaid dollars.
“Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott is next on the list,” Lusker said in recent interview with the Fort Scott Tribune.
Sumner Regional Medical Center in Wellington is also struggling to keep its doors open, said Terry Deschaine, a member of the hospital’s board.
“The financial challenges we’re facing are very significant,” he said, confirming that the city of Wellington recently had to back the hospital’s request for a $300,000 line of credit from a local bank.
In addition to staging a series of town-hall meetings in the districts of lawmakers thought to be swing votes, advocates are discussing possible changes to the Medicaid expansion bill in an effort to gain the handful of votes they need. Those could include adding a work requirement and language to ensure that no expansion dollars go to Planned Parenthood.
“We’re going to continue to work on it,” said Tom Bell, president and CEO of the hospital association.
Brownback cited the cost of expansion and the fact that it would extend health care benefits to “able-bodied” adults while thousands of Kansans with disabilities continued to wait for support services as reasons for vetoing the bill.
Jim McLean and Meg Wingerter are reporters for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of kcur.org, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas.