Kansas Lawmakers Hit Pause On Medicaid Expansion Override

House Social Services Budget Committee Chairwoman Brenda Landwehr speaks during the Medicaid expansion veto override debate.

By John Celock

With a potential hours’ long delay waiting for an absent lawmaker’s return looming, Kansas lawmakers have hit the pause button on an effort to enact Medicaid expansion.

The state House of Representatives voted Thursday to table a move to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) veto of the Medicaid expansion bill, setting the stage for a weekend long battle for votes and a likely Monday showdown on the issue. The move followed a lengthy and emotional debate over the Medicaid expansion issue, with proponents saying it would save lives and jobs, while opponents said that the expansion would cost the state money at a time of budget crisis. The move to table the measure came, as a supporter of the expansion said supporters would push for an absent lawmaker to return for the vote, a move that would lock lawmakers into their seats for several hours.

“If this isn’t the right time, when is the right time?” House Health and Human Services Committee Vice Chairwoman Susan Concannon (R-Beloit) said. “Are we going to wait for more hospitals to close? Are we going to wait for people to die because they cannot get insurance?”

Concannon and other supporters said that the bill has passed the state Legislature and that they could work outside the action of Brownback. The state House adopted the Medicaid expansion bill last month, with moderate Republicans and Democrats outmaneuvering conservative Republicans to bring the measure to a vote. The state Senate approved the measure last week. The original vote shows the measure three votes shy of what is needed for an override in the House and two votes shy in the Senate.

Brownback vetoed the measure Thursday morning saying that the bill did not include a work requirement to qualify for the Medicaid expansion, that the bill would fund Planned Parenthood and that the federal government could make changes to the Affordable Care Act which would change Medicaid expansion. Concannon and other supporters argued against these, with Concannon questioning how abortion became part of the debate.

“Medicaid doesn’t do bad things to people. It is not an abortion bill,” Concannon said. “Despite what I heard this morning, that was out of left field.”

Democratic lawmakers twice tried to adjourn the state House in order to allow for more time between the veto and the override vote. House Minority Leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita) and House Democratic Agenda Chairman Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) said that lawmakers should have more time to listen to their constituents before making the final votes.

Whipple said that he has seen legislators divide into two camps when they are elected. He said some are community minded while others are Topeka minded.

“There are two games we play when we are elected. There is a game in our community, people close to their community. They are the people who show up to their communities, return phone calls and emails,” Whipple said. “There is the other game we play up here is being taken out to dinners and being invited to events. We forget who we work for. We are not here to serve the governor and the interest groups up here. They are the only ones who have had a chance to be heard.”

The motions to adjourn the House until Monday were both defeated.

Ward, who has been a main proponent of the Medicaid expansion for several years, made an emotional speech where he accused Brownback of misleading residents about the impact the Medicaid expansion could have.

“I’ve never heard a more dishonest statement than what we just heard. The governor pits working poor against disabled,” Ward said. “He talks about costs without talking benefits. He talks about change in Washington without putting Kansas in the best position to take advantage.”

Moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to push for the override expansion. Rep. Stephanie Clayton (R-Overland Park) said that the expansion is backed by business leaders and read a list of local chambers of commerce across the state that have endorsed the measure.

Rep. Chuck Weber (R-Wichita) spoke against the expansion, saying that he was looking out for those he said would be hurt by the expansion and not the local business community. He said that expansion would hurt the mentally ill, disabled and pregnant women and deny them health care.

“With all due respect I do not care about the chamber of commerce,” Weber said. “Who are the special interest groups pushing this, you know who they are.’

House Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Dan Hawkins (R-Wichita) said that the bill could not be supported fiscally in the state. He said that the state’s current budget crisis gave him pause about wanting to take on new costs. He said that the federal funding that the law has in place could not be guaranteed with Congress and President Donald Trump looking to make changes to the Affordable Care Act. He said that the ACA is “set to implode.”

“What I hope it comes down to for the body is that this one piece of legislation could chart a course of financial disaster for us for a long time,” Hawkins said.

Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) and House Social Services Budget Committee Chairwoman Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita) agreed with Hawkins on the fiscal issues. Whitmer read a list of what he said were states that lost money after adopting the Medicaid expansion and Landwehr saying the move would harm the state’s ability to fund other issues, including community mental health centers.

Rep. Blake Carpenter (R-Derby) said that he would be opposing the override because the majority of his constituents were opposed to the measure, based on the emails he has received.

Thursday’s actions are the latest in a long saga relating to Medicaid expansion in the state. Conservative Republicans legislative leaders spent much of 2015 and 2016 working to prevent a House floor vote on the issue, which supporters said would favor the expansion. In December 2015, the then state House speaker pulled three moderate Republicans from the health panel in order to prevent a vote.

Last month, following a health committee vote to table the Medicaid expansion, Democrats and moderate Republicans teamed to force a House floor vote, setting the stage of Thursday’s veto and override debate. The House passage came after a several hour debate and several unsuccessful attempts to amend the bill.

The House voted to delay Thursday’s vote after Rep. Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) explained that supporters would seek a Call of the House in order to force all 125 House members to be present and vote, a move that could help supporters. Such a move requires all House members present to remain in the chamber and in their seats, with only permission to leave to use the bathroom. The move would also require any absent House members to report to Topeka and would allow the Kansas Highway Patrol to round up any missing members and bring them to Topeka, including by state aircraft if needed. He said that the one missing lawmaker was several hours away from Topeka at the time. During a Call of the House, legislators would be unable to conduct any other business and lawmakers had a full schedule for the day.

Supporters of the override said they would continue to push the measure.

“This bill is about life. This bill is about helping with disabilities. This bill is about helping people who struggle with mental illness,” Rep. Joy Koesten (R-Leawood) said. “The point is this is about our citizens, the citizens of Kansas, the ones who elected us to be here today. I will vote to override this veto.”