KHI News Service

Brownback working group to tackle rural health care problems

Governor directs group to find ‘Kansas solution’ to issues threatening rural providers

By Jim McLean | January 13, 2016

Brownback working group to tackle rural health care problems
Photo by KHI News Service Republican Rep. Jim Kelly represents Independence, the southeast Kansas community that recently lost its only hospital due to budget problems. Kelly was named Wednesday to Gov. Sam Brownback’s new rural health working group.

A key member of Gov. Sam Brownback’s new rural health working group says he hopes the initiative is a serious effort to address problems facing rural providers, not an attempt to divert attention from a renewed push to expand the state’s Medicaid program.

Republican Rep. Jim Kelly represents Independence, the southeast Kansas community that recently lost its only hospital due to budget problems exacerbated by federal reductions in Medicare reimbursement rates and the state’s rejection of Medicaid expansion.

Kelly supports Medicaid expansion. But he said continuing opposition from Brownback and Republican legislative leaders makes it unlikely that expansion advocates will win approval of a plan this session to draw down millions of additional federal dollars and provide health coverage to more poor adults, many of whom are now uninsured.

Still, he’s hopeful that the working group can stimulate a meaningful discussion about what else the state can do to help both providers and rural Kansans struggling to get health care.

“I hope it (the working group) is a serious effort to try to come up with a way to address the situation before another one, two or three hospitals close and we have other communities experiencing the same thing that I’ve lived through the last six months,” Kelly said.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will head the nine-member working group, said it was formed to address the problems of health care delivery in rural Kansas.

“As a fifth-generation rural Kansan and a physician, I understand that rural hospitals are often the lifeblood of their community,” Colyer said in a news release issued by the governor’s office. “We must continue to form Kansas solutions to sustain rural health care.”

Colyer, a plastic surgeon, grew up in Hays but now lives in Overland Park.

Brownback announced the formation of the group Tuesday in his State of the State speech as an alternative to Medicaid expansion. He  said the federal Affordable Care Act is largely responsible for the increased financial pressures on rural providers. So, he said, expansion, which is part of the ACA, shouldn't be viewed as a solution. 

“We should not expand Obamacare to solve the problem,” he said, reasserting his opposition to Medicaid expansion.

Despite what is certain to be an uphill battle, the Kansas Hospital Association is preparing to renew its push for an expansion plan modeled after those adopted in other red states headed by Republican governors generally opposed to the ACA.

The proposal, which could be introduced next week as a bill, is expected to resemble a so-called consumer-driven plan adopted in Indiana that requires beneficiaries to contribute to the cost of their care and penalizes those who don’t pay their premiums on time.

Cindy Samuelson, a KHA spokesperson, said the association’s focus on expansion doesn’t mean its members aren’t also open to ideas generated by the governor’s working group.

“Expanding KanCare is just one opportunity we have to help rural providers,” Samuelson said. “We hope the new group would add a sense of urgency to the issues facing the delivery of health care in rural Kansas.”

KanCare is the name given to Kansas’ Medicaid program when it was privatized in 2013.

The working group includes four legislators, all Republicans. In addition to Kelly they are Sen. Mitch Holmes, of St. John, and the chairs of the House and Senate health committees: Rep. Dan Hawkins, of Wichita, and Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, of Olathe.

Also serving are Susan Mosier, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and Kari Bruffett, a former secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services who now directs policy at the Kansas Health Institute, parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service.

Two rural health care providers round out the group’s members: Linda Stalcup, CEO of Stevens County Hospital in Hugoton, and Dr. Jenifer Cook.

No date has been set for the working group’s first meeting, but Colyer said it would occur during the 2016 legislative session, which started this week and is scheduled to end in May.

Brownback has given the group a year to finish its work. 

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