By Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service
TOPEKA — The Kansas legislative session began with what seemed like a done deal for expanding Medicaid. Gov. Laura Kelly and a top Republican senator had forged a compromise to offer health coverage for up to 130,000 low-income Kansans.
About a month later, the deal ground to a halt because of abortion politics. Medicaid supporters were irritated. Moderate Republicans and Democrats threatened to fight back by delaying the state budget. And abortion opponents stood firm.
“I’m pretty frustrated,” said Republican Sen. Randall Hardy of Salina, who supports expanding Medicaid. “I’m willing to consider almost anything at this point.”
AARP, the Silver Haired Legislature and many other advocates for seniors support Medicaid expansion, noting it would extend health insurance to thousands of Kansans between 60 and 64 who are too young for Medicare but who do not currently qualify for Medicaid.
The issues of Medicaid expansion and abortion became intertwined when the Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion which would overturn a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said the state constitution guarantees women the right to the procedure. The House narrowly rejected it on Feb. 7.
That led the influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life to call for blocking Medicaid expansion until the amendment is on a ballot. Republican Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita has led the charge to put the amendment before voters.
Abortion opponents say the delay is necessary, fearing that the court ruling on abortion rights could lead to state money being used for abortions through an expanded Medicaid program.
“If we want to be able to protect human life and protect the citizens of Kansas from being forced to fund abortions through Medicaid, then this is just a position that we have to take,” Kansans For Life’s Director of Government Relations Jeanne Gawdun said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, the Overland Park Republican who helped draft the Medicaid compromise, pushed back, saying state funding would not go to abortions due to federal law.
Last year, Democrats and moderate Republicans tried holding up the budget in the House to get Medicaid expansion, but ultimately didn’t have enough votes. The top Democrat in the House said expansion is such a high priority this year that they’re willing to try again if needed.
“We will keep discussing it with them to get that leverage,” House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita said.
Since Republicans hold strong majorities in both chambers, Democrats would need to attract a healthy number of Republicans like Hardy if they hope to successfully block any bills.
The strategy of holding up the Legislature to get Medicaid expansion is a risky play, Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said. It could anger voters if the delay drags on to the point that important services such as roads and law enforcement aren’t funded.
“This is the nuclear option,” Beatty said, “because the last thing voters, constituents and even legislators want is for the Legislature to not be able to do anything, including funding programs that everybody agrees should be funded.”
Meanwhile, Medicaid supporters held a rally last month, shouting their disapproval of the whole situation inside the Statehouse.
“There’s been one delay after another,” Alliance for a Healthy Kansas Executive Director April Holman said, “with no end in sight.”
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service
(ksnewsservice.org). The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. The active age contributed to this report.