Kansas continues to holdout on expanding Medicaid, advocates urge it could help save rural healthcare

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SUBLETTE, Kan. (KSNW) – Should Medicaid expand in Kansas to provide health insurance for more lower income Kansans?

It’s been debated for years in Topeka, but never passed. On Wednesday, there was an effort to put it into a bill on the Senate floor, but that did not go forward. 

Kansas is one of the last states holding out on expanding Medicaid. Thirty-eight states have chosen to adopt the program including Kansas’ four border states. 

According to the latest Fort Hays State University, Kansas Speaks poll, 62% of Kansans support Medicaid or KanCare expansion.

From a newly updated estimate, Kansas health leaders suggest 165,000 Kansans could benefit from the program if expanded. Up 15,000 from a previous estimate of 150,000 Kansans.

Those against the expansion say it could lead to higher out-of-pocket costs, lower-quality care, and say it would be too expensive for the state, now and in the future, if federal funding stops.

“I personally don’t see it, but that’s the huge argument for it, and you know I’ve been wrong before, they could be correct, there could be a lot more cost associated with healthcare. But I don’t know if there’s anything more important than one’s health,” said Sen, John Doll, (R) Garden City and advocate for Medicaid expansion.

Proponents say failing to expand Medicaid is putting Kansas at a healthcare disadvantage and an economic one.

“It will become much harder for us to attract and retain businesses in our rural communities when there are communities just on the other side of all of our borders that will be able to provide the stronger healthcare system,” said April Holman, Executive Director of Alliance for a Healthy Kansas.

Although the debate continues, for those in rural areas, many are calling for change.

Rex Bruce, superintendent for Sublette Schools, wears multiple hats. While walking the halls supervising his schools, he’s also an advocate for the American Heart Association and is now pushing for Medicaid expansion.

He says he believes the expansion could save his community and rural healthcare. He says it’s a personal fight.

He’s battling advanced stages of prostate cancer and his wife suffers from anaphylactic shock. Without a hospital just minutes away, he says one of them would have died by now.

“She’s gotta be at an ER when that neck starts swelling or she dies, and sometimes, I couldn’t get her 30-45 miles,” said Bruce. “If it would’ve been 35, 40 minutes to get there, it would’ve been more serious,” said Rex Bruce, USD 374 Superintendent.

Rex Bruce is concerned his hospital could be next. 

A recent study from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform shows in Kansas, 47 hospitals are at risk of closing.

“What we want is for us to keep our hospitals open and the way to keep those open is, people to pay their bills, and to pay your bills, you need to have health insurance,” said Bruce.

Bruce also worries for his employees. He says many can’t afford private health insurance.

“I’ve got 15, 20 employees, just like that that can’t pay their bills, and they can’t have health insurance, and a matter of a fact we had a couple go to Mexico to get health care,” said Bruce.

He says it’s a matter of giving everyone a chance to live a healthy life and afford doing so.

“I see the people that don’t go get check-ups, I see the people that get sick and don’t go to the doctor, cause they can’t afford it. That’s a big part of our population that definitely needs our help,” said Bruce. 

So far, this legislative session, there has been no substantial debate on Medicaid expansion in House or Senate committees, and Governor Kelly’s plan to pay for the expansion with legalized medical marijuana has not made it to the floor.

Doll says it will be difficult to pass an expansion until the next Senate election.

“I would love to be able to tell we’re gonna get it, I would love to tell you it’s this, truthfully, I don’t see it happening in the next three and a half years,” said Sen, John Doll, (R) Garden City.

For Kansans like Bruce, he hopes there will be some action soon.

“With our poverty level, we have quite a few families that qualify for Medicaid now, but we also have so many working families, single-income families that are trying to make it. They make too much money now, but don’t have enough money to buy insurance. They’re stuck in the middle,” he said. “With Medicaid expansion, those people would be helped immediately, their lives would change, they would get proper treatment, go to the doctor. It would be huge for us.”

Currently, the state’s program is only available to pregnant women, people with disabilities, those over 65, and families of four making $10,000 or less.

Under the current Affordable Care Act, the state would pay 10% toward the expansion and the federal government 90%.

“We’ve reached critical mass at the national level and as we hold out here in Kansas, we are just hurting ourselves. It goes back to political arguments as opposed to the real needs that we are experiencing in Kansas communities,” said Holman.

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