AP NEWS

Kansas expansion foes signal nervousness with Medicaid move

April 2, 2019
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Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, makes a point about Medicaid expansion during a news conference, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. Wagle has opposed expansion but says GOP leaders are planning to have the issue studied further this summer and fall so that they consider alternatives to a plan from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republican lawmakers in Kansas appear skittish about being able to block Medicaid expansion, offering political cover to moderate GOP colleagues if they back off their push for an expansion this year.

State Senate President Susan Wagle told reporters Tuesday that GOP leaders plan to have a legislative committee study Medicaid expansion this summer and fall. She said the panel would review proposals that could generate broader support among Republicans, such as a work requirement or drug testing for people receiving the expanded coverage.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has made expanding Medicaid health coverage for as many as 150,000 additional Kansas residents one of her top priorities after her Republican predecessors thwarted it. Expansion has bipartisan support, but conservative Republicans who oppose it hold key positions in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Expansion opponents prevented even a legislative committee vote on a plan until supporters forced a debate in the House two weeks ago and passed a modified version of Kelly’s plan. The Senate has yet to take up the bill, and expansion supporters are trying to pressure that chamber’s GOP leaders into allowing a vote while working on ways to maneuver around them.

“If it passes, it will be a plan that’s affordable for Kansas and it will be catered to our needs,” said Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican who’s been a strong expansion opponent. “We’re willing and open to discuss it, but we want to do the right thing.”

GOP leaders have argued that Medicaid expansion will be too expensive for Kansas, even with the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act’s promise that the federal government will cover most of the cost. Wagle also argued that state lawmakers should wait to see whether Congress overhauls health care again, but President Donald Trump on Tuesday deferred his push for a GOP alternative until after the 2020 election.

Thirty-six states have expanded Medicaid or have seen voters approve ballot initiatives. The federal government would cover 90 percent of the cost for Kansas.

State Rep. Susan Concannon, a moderate western Kansas Republican who supports Medicaid expansion, said GOP leaders are “feeling the heat” of popular support for it and further study is a “stall tactic” to get them through this year.

“I have a feeling their districts are starting to show their support for Medicaid expansion as well, and this is their effort to respond,” said Sen. Randall Hardy, another GOP moderate from central Kansas.

Kelly called on legislators to pass an expansion bill this week. Lawmakers are scheduled to begin an annual spring break Saturday and reconvene May 1 to wrap up business for the year.

“Enough is enough,” Kelly told reporters during a news conference. “No more stall tactics. No more bait and switch. No more excuses.”

Kelly’s administration estimates that the net cost of an expansion to Kansas would be $34 million during its first full year. Republican leaders believe the figure is far too low.

Wagle said legislators need months to review what other states have done, study what limits the Trump administration might allow and examine alternatives to Kelly’s plan.

“We want to put caveats in,” Wagle said. “We want time to look at those.”

But expansion supporters said an expansion plan will pass the Senate this year if backers can engineer a vote. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, dismissed Wagle’s arguments for further study.

“It’s a position of weakness,” he said.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .