With the fate of Topeka’s St. Francis Health Center in doubt, members of Shawnee County’s legislative delegation spoke critically at a panel discussion Saturday about Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a proposal to expand Medicaid in Kansas.
Kansas Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, held up a copy of an article in Saturday’s Topeka Capital-Journal that revealed the 378-bed hospital could be closed by its Denver owners, SCL Health, who have been unable to secure a deal with potential buyers. SCL said last May that a lack of Medicaid expansion in Kansas was among reasons for its decision to seek buyers.
Miller recalled that the century-old Mercy Hospital closed in 2015 at Independence in southeast Kansas, where officials suggested Medicaid expansion would have helped the facility survive.
“It’s not just politics,” Miller said. “It’s real. A hospital in Independence has already closed and devastated a community.”
Miller was among 10 members of the county’s legislative delegation who took part in Saturday morning’s discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. It was sponsored by groups that included the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters.
Lawmakers taking part were state Sens. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka; Laura Kelly, D-Topeka; and Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka; and state Reps. Miller; John Alcala, D-Topeka; Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka; Jim Gartner, D-Topeka; Annie Kuether, D-Topeka; Fred Patton, R-Topeka; and Virgil Weigel, D-Topeka.
About 60 members of the public attended the event, which was moderated by Topeka Capital-Journal opinion editor Matt Johnson. Audience members submitted written questions for legislators to answer.
Kelly drew laughs when she was asked how the state could reduce barriers to voting, and she replied, “Get a new secretary of state.”
Kelly then added that she seriously believes Kansans need to replace Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Saturday’s program took place one day after legislators left for a three-week break, with key issues regarding the state budget, tax policy and school finance formula waiting for them when they return in May.
Some of Saturday’s most spirited discussion came about Brownback’s veto of a bill that would have expanded the state’s Medicaid program to cover as many as 180,000 additional adults. Kansas House members this past week voted 81-44 to override the move, falling short of the 84 votes needed for the two-thirds majority needed to overturn it.
No one spoke in support of Brownback’s veto at Saturday’s panel discussion. All 10 legislators taking part had voted to expand Medicaid.
Weigel told those present: “We’ve had a small rural hospital that’s already closed. And that’s not going to be the last, if we don’t fix the situation right now.”
Dietrich said she knew some legislators who were still working to find ways to bring the issue back to the floor.
“I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year,” she said.
Hensley, the Senate minority leader, said western Kansas voters were largely responsible for re-electing Brownback as governor in 2014, and noted that western Kansas legislators had overwhelmingly voted to expand Medicaid.
“He actually turned his back on western Kansas, in my opinion, by vetoing Medicaid expansion,” Hensley said.
Alcala criticized Reps. Ken Corbet, R-Topeka, Ron Ellis, R-Meriden, and Don Highland, R-Wamego, for voting this past week in support of Brownback’s veto.
Contact reporter Tim Hrenchir at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.