This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.
A large section of what used to be Mercy Hospital in Independence has been torn down in the year since it closed.
On a hot August day, a bulldozer prepares the lot where it once stood for construction of a new city garage.
Andy Taylor, editor of the weekly Montgomery County Chronicle, said many residents of the community of about 10,000 still aren’t sure exactly what happened. But he said they believe city and state officials could and should have done more to save the hospital.
“What the average citizen knows is there’s not a hospital here,” Taylor said. “The day in August of 2015 when Mercy Health System said, ‘We’re closing this hospital,’ people woke up and they said, ‘OK, elected officials, where were you?’”
As it turns out, several area lawmakers were among those who, with Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican legislative leaders, blocked something that might have helped: Medicaid expansion.
“The refusal to expand Medicaid is part of the reason (the hospital closed),” said Chuck Schmidt, a Democrat running for the Kansas Legislature seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff King of Independence.
“We know that hospital lost $1.6 million a year as a result of not having Medicaid expansion,” Schmidt said, referring to the amount the hospital would have gained in higher reimbursements under expansion.
Two area lawmakers who were vocal opponents of Medicaid expansion were defeated in the August primary election.
Rep. Virgil Peck, a conservative Republican from Tyro, lost his bid for an open Senate seat to Dan Goddard, a retired businessman from Parsons. Sen. Forrest Knox, of Altoona, an 11-year legislative veteran, fell to Bruce Givens, an educator from El Dorado.
Both Peck and Knox were supporters of Brownback’s 2012 income tax cuts. Those cuts and the budget problems that followed were, Taylor said, the main reasons for their defeat. But he said Peck’s perceived inaction on the hospital issue also was a factor.
“The hospital was in his district,” Taylor said. “And he said absolutely nothing to help the situation.”
Even with Kansas hospital administrators calling for the expansion of KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, candidates approach the issue with care because of its connection to the Affordable Care Act, the federal health reform law that many in this part of the state still refer to as Obamacare.
“Quite frankly, before the shock of the hospital (closure) hit me, I was leaning against it.”- Doug Blex of rural Independence, a Republican candidate for the Kansas House
The campaign card that Schmidt gives to voters when he goes door-to-door doesn’t mention expansion and the fact that it would provide health coverage to tens of thousands of low-income Kansans. Instead, it says he supports “quality rural health care.”
Schmidt said other area hospitals could be at risk without the additional federal dollars expansion would provide.
“Labette County hospital is losing $3 million a year now, and Coffeyville is losing $2 million,” he said, noting that Neosho Regional Medical Center in Chanute would get an additional $2.5 million a year under expansion.
“Those are significant numbers,” he said. “If we don’t get turned around and get Medicaid expansion, we could have other hospitals close as well.”
To date, the Kansas Hospital Association estimates the rejection of expansion has cost the state nearly $1.4 billion in additional federal funds.
It’s not just Democrats who now are amenable to expansion. Goddard, Schmidt’s GOP opponent in the general election, favors it.
Doug Blex is a conservative Republican running for Peck’s old House seat. A retired state employee who now ranches near Independence, Blex said he initially was skeptical of Medicaid expansion as another program that he didn’t think the debt-strapped federal government could afford.
“Quite frankly, before the shock of the hospital (closure) hit me, I was leaning against it,” he said.
But seeing the hospital where he and his children were born close caused him to rethink his position. Now, after “a lot of discussion with other people,” he has concluded that expansion isn’t all that different from other federal programs important to rural America.
“Farmers get federal subsidies,” he said. “And if it takes a federal subsidy (to stabilize rural hospitals) and it’s not costing Kansans a lot of money … I’m leaning to probably support Medicaid expansion.”
The ACA requires the federal government to permanently cover no less than 90 percent of the costs of expansion.
Jean Kurtis Schodorf of Sedan, Blex’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, also favors expansion.
The emerging bipartisan support for expansion is an indication that no candidate in southeast Kansas wants to run the risk of their local hospital being the next to shut its doors.