KHI News Service

Group urges Brownback to expand Medicaid eligibility

By Dave Ranney | November 09, 2012

KHI News Service

Former State Rep. Carolyn Weinhold was among those who gathered at the Statehouse on Friday in support of expanding the state's Medicaid program. In the 1990s, Weinhold was a Democrat representing a Salina district. She now works for the Kansas Disability Rights Center in Topeka.

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About 100 people rallied outside the Kansas Statehouse today, urging state officials to expand Medicaid eligiblity as provided for in the federal health reform law.

A Lawrence pastor cast the expansion as a Christian imperative during a call-and-response exercise with the crowd.

“If Jesus was up in the Capitol would he make a choice to keep 130,000 people without care?” said the Rev. Joshua Longbottom, associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence.

"No," the crowd shouted.

“If Jesus was up in the Capitol, would he tell families that they just need to get better jobs so that they could afford to take care of themselves?” Longbottom asked.

Again, the answer was "no."

“Did Jesus say, ‘I’m sorry you can’t get to the well, Mr. Leper, but you need to cultivate some self-reliance’?” Longbottom said.

“No,” the crowd yelled.

“So I ask the question, Gov. Brownback, ‘What would Jesus do?” Longbottom said. “I thought the mark of his ministry was caring for the ill, caring for the sick, caring for the dispossessed, caring for the marginalized, caring the first for the least.”

Longbottom said he hoped the governor wasn’t a “…politician who puts on his Christianity like it’s a cardigan (sweater), using it to gain access to a constituency.”

Brownback, a conservative Republican, has been outspoken about his Christianity and penned a spiritual autobiography titled "From Power to Purpose."

He's been a consistent political foe of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, first in the U.S. Senate and later as governor.

<a name="continued"></a>He has said repeatedly that the majority of Kansans are opposed to the reform law and cites the success of the law's opponents in recent state elections as the proof.

Expansion not ruled out

Earlier this week, the governor announced that he would block the state’s participation in a state-federal insurance exchange, one of the hallmarks of the new law. But unlike some Republican governors, he hasn't ruled out the possibility he would support some sort of Medicaid expansion.

"The Medicaid expansion is a separate issue" from the insurance exchange, said chief Brownback spokesperson Sherriene Jones-Sontag in an email Friday to KHI News Service in response to a question asking if the governor would oppose opening up the program.

"We are continuing to discuss options and alternatives with like-minded states and with our legislative partners in Kansas," she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, but said the law couldn't oblige states to expand their Medicaid programs. The law gives states the option of expanding their Medicaid programs to include adults earning up to 133 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

Currently, the Kansas Medicaid program is restricted mostly to poor children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly. A non-disabled adult rearing children is currently eligible for Medicaid, if his or her income is below 32 percent of the poverty level — about $5,200 a year for a young mother with two children. Childless adults are not eligible for Medicaid regardless of their income.

Kansas’ eligibility threshold is among the lowest in the nation.

According to a preliminary estimate by analysts at the Kansas Health Institute, if Kansas were to expand its eligibility to 133 percent of the poverty level, more than 130,000 people could be added to the program’s rolls by 2019.

Governors in at least six states — Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — have said they will reject the expansion, citing concerns that it would prove to be too expensive and would expand rather than shrink the role of government.

Governors in at least 13 states have said they will expand the program.

The Friday rally, which lasted about 40 minutes, was coordinated by the Kansas Health Consumer Coalition.

Anna Lambertson, executive director of the Kansas Health Consumer Coalition.

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“We had a really good turnout,” said the coalition’s executive director, Anna Lambertson. “We had people here from Wichita, Kansas City, Lawrence, and, of course, from right here in Topeka. This was about people coming together to talk about what matters, and what really matters is health care. If people are covered, they’re healthier. That’s the most important thing.”

Kari Rinker, a regional spokeswoman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, used the rally to announce that the organization plans on hiring a lobbyist to push Medicaid expansion during the 2013 legislative session.

“This will be a slow process,” she said, “but we will keep the pressure on. We will get this done.”

Rinker is the former executive director of the Kansas branch of the National Organization for Women.

Also speaking at the rally:

• Jennifer Weishaar, Consumer and advocate from Lawrence

• Will Dale, community organizer from the University of Kansas;

• Eric Harkness, a consumer and mental health advocate from Topeka;

• Tom Witt, executive director with the Kansas Equality Coalition;

• Carol Ramirez-Albott, former director of the Shawnee County Health Department.

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