Kansas panel’s scolding gives Brownback preview of future

Sam Brownback
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (KSN File Photo)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration got a taste of what working with a less conservative Legislature could look like Friday in the form of an oversight committee’s angry, bipartisan scolding over issues within the state’s Medicaid program.

The public dressing-down of Department of Health and Environment officials came three days after voters in the state’s primary election ousted a large number of Brownback’s conservative Republican allies in the Legislature. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce and 10 other GOP lawmakers lost their seats; three others narrowly trail in unofficial results.

House-Senate oversight committee members were upset about budget-balancing cuts in payments to pharmacies, doctors and hospitals providing services to Medicaid participants. Lawmakers were frustrated with a backlog in Medicaid applications and angry that the state is still pursuing some changes opposed by many advocates and legislators.

The questions of health department Secretary Susan Mosier and Mike Randol, its director of health care finance, were unusually sharp coming from a GOP-dominated committee. Republican Sen. Jim Denning, of Overland Park, said during a break in the meeting that voters sent a clear message Tuesday that they’re displeased with the governor.

“They want us to get the trains running back on time,” Denning said.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since GOP legislators slashed personal income taxes at Brownback’s urging in 2012 and 2013 in an attempt to stimulate the economy. While the governor blames national trends such as slumps in agriculture and energy production, even some Republicans acknowledge the tax cuts didn’t work as anticipated.

The conservative governor has touted his administration’s overhaul of Medicaid as a success that’s controlled costs while improving health care for the 375,000 poor, disabled and elderly Kansas residents covered by it. The state in 2013 turned over administration of the program to three private health insurance companies and renamed it KanCare.

The companies initially lost money on their contracts, raising questions about whether the overhaul is sustainable. The state has faced persistent complaints that the companies are too slow in reimbursing providers and deny too many claims.

Some Democrats have questioned whether the applications backlog was created deliberately to control costs, though the health department said it will be remedied soon.

“I believe KanCare is working,” Randol told the committee. “There’s going to be a challenge in any system that we have. There were challenges prior to KanCare.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, called cuts in providers’ payments “devastating.” Democrats accused Mosier and other officials of not advocating aggressively enough in budget discussions for the needy, disabled and elderly.

Lawmakers in both parties are angry that the health department continues to pursue a consolidation of seven programs providing in-home services to the disabled and elderly. Randol and other administration officials believe the move would lessen administrative hurdles to people seeking services.

But Hawkins said the health department should solve existing problems first and that a consolidation could be “botched.” Advocates worry that services will be cut.

“Do you hear what these people are saying?” Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, demanded of Mosier. “Do you have ANY emphathy?”

A flustered Mosier responded, “That would be an interesting kind of question — it’s simply attacking character.”

Hawkins said frustrations with the Medicaid program have been building for weeks. But Democratic Rep. Jim Ward, of Wichita, attributed what he called “much more aggressive questioning” from the committee to the primary results.

“Elections have consequences. I think the people said, ‘There are essential services,’ and we’re talking about those right now.”

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