TOPEKA — Mulvane school board member and volunteer firefighter Amy Houston was stricken a decade ago with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Her inability to consistently maintain health insurance while enduring chemotherapy and radiation treatment left her exhausted, deep in debt and fearful cancer would again ravage her body. The mother of four outlined her life-and-death predicament for a Senate committee Wednesday considering a bill to expand eligibility for Medicaid in Kansas. If state lawmakers approved the bill, she would qualify.
“I ask you to step into my shoes for a minute,” Houston said. “I was 40 pounds lighter than I am now. My hair had fallen out. I had skin rashes. My children were suffering.”
She continued to work until daily radiation therapy left her unable to perform job duties.
“Due to over $60,000 worth of medical debt, and not qualifying for bankruptcy, I had to stop going to the oncologist. To this day, I do not know the status of my health,” she said.
About 140 people submitted written testimony to the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee in support of broadening Medicaid eligibility to approximately 150,000 low-income Kansans. Opponents to the bill made their case, too.
Gov. Jeff Colyer and former Sam Brownback have opposed expansion since the Affordable Care Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. So far, 33 states and the District of Columbia embraced expansion of Medicaid under a law requiring the federal government to pay at least 90 percent of the cost.
In 2017, the Kansas House and Senate adopted a Medicaid-expansion bill that was vetoed by Brownback. The Legislature fell short of the two-thirds majority required to override the governor.
During a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Colyer declined to comment on pleas for Medicaid expansion.
In a packed committee room at the Capitol, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment offered a counterpoint to Houston’s view of Medicaid expansion. KDHE Secretary Jeff Anderson affirmed the governor’s opposition to Obamacare and urged the committee to reject Senate Bill 38.
“Medicaid expansion as currently structured is not the right policy for Kansas," Anderson said.
He said jolting the Kansas Medicaid system, which serves 400,000 pregnant women, children, seniors and people with disabilities, with an expansion initiative would distract the Colyer administration from work to address problems with the Medicaid system in Kansas. As Brownback's lieutenant governor, Colyer was the primary architect of the state's privatized Medicaid program known as KanCare.
Gregg Pfister, representing the Foundation for Government Accountability, said the Senate bill would pervert the state’s Medicaid safety-net. Expansion will prioritize able-bodied adults over the state’s most vulnerable citizens, he said.
“This is not assistance for someone’s elderly grandmother who is struggling to live or money for the developmentally or physically disabled,” Pfister said. “Senate Bill 38 is about growing welfare.”
He said states spending more on Medicaid programs tended to crowd out financing for education, law enforcement, highways and other government priorities.
Randy Peterson, president and chief executive officer of Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, said Anderson and Pfister would have the state continue to turn its back on people who earned too much to qualify for KanCare but too little to be eligible for financial help to buy private insurance.
These uninsured often don’t receive preventative medical treatment and wait until health issues require emergency intervention, he said.
In 2016, Peterson said, Stormont Vail Health recorded $45 million in charity write-offs for patients under the federal poverty level who could have been covered under expanded KanCare.
“With federal funds replacing state funds and a program emphasis on primary and preventative care to lower health care costs, the likely result is a net financial gain for Kansas,” he said.