Medicaid expansion advocates say Kansas policymakers should take notice of elections this week in Maine and Virginia.
In Maine, lawmakers had sent five expansion bills to Republican Gov. Paul LePage in recent years. He vetoed them all. So Maine voters took matters into their own hands Tuesday by overwhelmingly approving a ballot initiative authorizing expansion.
In the Virginia governor’s race, Ralph Northam, a Democrat who supported expansion, handily defeated Ed Gillespie, a Republican who didn’t, in a race where nearly 40 percent of voters cited health care as a top issue.
Kansas doesn’t have an initiative and referendum process. So expansion advocates can’t force a statewide vote on the issue. But they will continue their efforts to win legislative approval of an expansion bill, said David Jordan, director of the pro-expansion Alliance for a Healthy Kansas.
“We’re going to strongly push for expanding KanCare in the upcoming session,” Jordan said, referring to the state’s privatized Medicaid program.
“It’s clear from our polling that over three-quarters of Kansans support expanding KanCare,” Jordan said, adding that this week’s election results show that voters will “reward candidates” who support expansion.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed an expansion bill in March that would have made approximately 150,000 low-income adults eligible for KanCare coverage. Lawmakers attempted to override the veto but fell a few votes short.
When the 2018 session convenes in January, advocates may attempt to gain support among lawmakers concerned about the cost of expansion by proposing an increase in the state’s tobacco tax to pay for it, Jordan said.
Brownback’s expected departure for a State Department post in the Trump administration would put the issue in the hands of Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who also has been a strong opponent of KanCare expansion.
Even so, advocates hope that Colyer’s perceived need to differentiate himself from the unpopular Brownback ahead of the 2018 election might prompt him to reconsider.
If that is a possibility, Colyer gave no indication of it during a recent interview. When asked about polls showing broad support for expansion among Kansas voters, he said, “It depends on how you ask Kansans the question.”
“What Kansans have made clear is that they don’t want more government, they want smaller government,” Colyer said. “But they want results.”
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.