The Wichita Eagle, Sept. 19
Resistance to Medicaid expansion hurting state
The time to get serious about expanding Medicaid in Kansas was many months ago, when hospitals started warning that the failure to do so posed an existential threat.
The risk just got real in Independence, with the state's inaction linked to Mercy Hospital's decision to start shutting down Oct. 10. At least some leaders' opposition may be softening.
Independence hospital officials also cited staffing problems and declines in population and Medicare reimbursement rates. But the financial woes could have been countered, if not offset, by the $1.6 million a year due Mercy Hospital under Medicaid expansion, according to the Kansas Hospital Association. About 190 jobs and $13 million in annual pay and benefits will be lost in Independence, and more closures may occur in other rural communities.
The GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback haven't wanted to go near Medicaid expansion because of its link to the Affordable Care Act. Greater Medicaid eligibility was anticipated in all states under the ACA as passed in 2010, but was made optional under a 2012 Supreme Court decision. The resulting choice was easy for the governor and his conservative allies, but there are serious consequences to not joining the 30 states that have expanded their Medicaid programs.
Because of lower reimbursement rates in Medicare and Medicaid under the ACA, Kansas hospitals will lose nearly $132 million a year as of 2016, according to the KHA. The increased federal funding from Medicaid expansion promises hospitals a net gain of nearly $231 million in revenues annually.
Just as important, expansion could newly cover perhaps 150,000 Kansans under the Brownback administration's privatized Medicaid program, known as KanCare, which now covers about 425,000 residents who are poor or disabled.
The urgency may be hitting home for influential lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, who said last week: "As we look at states like Indiana that take a real state-centric approach to addressing the health care needs of their poor, I think that's something that Kansas needs to strongly consider."
Both Indiana and Arkansas have flavored their expansions with Republican ideas emphasizing the free market and individual responsibility. "I think those two both give us models, along with Rep. Sloan's concept on the provider tax, that can be a way forward for Kansas," King told the Lawrence Journal-World.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, promoted a bill last spring under which providers would cover the state's share of expansion costs once the federal government's share starts dropping to 90 percent after 2016.
King's comments are an encouraging sign - especially from a member of Senate leadership, which is seen as closer to the governor than its House counterparts. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has also expressed openness to expansion.
Brownback's recent statements show no change in his thinking. But surely he and other leaders can see that their continued resistance is not doing anything to weaken or end "Obamacare," which was barely mentioned during the first two GOP presidential debates and has helped the nation's uninsured rate drop from 15.4 to 10.4 percent since 2012.
Instead, it's hurting Kansans and their communities.
Lawrence Journal-World, Sept. 17
Former Sen. Bob Dole already has recruited an impressive group of heavy hitters to help him raise money to complete the Eisenhower Memorial.
Who better than former Sen. Bob Dole to spearhead fundraising for a memorial to honor another World War II hero, former President Dwight Eisenhower?
Dole announced last week that he would launch a campaign to raise $150 million — in private funds, if necessary — to complete the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. The design of the memorial has been a matter of controversy for more than 15 years and critics of the design have stalled efforts to obtain congressional approval of funding for the project.
"To heck with 'em," Dole told the Associated Press. "We're going to go ahead and build it." Eisenhower wouldn't have wanted taxpayers to pay for his memorial anyway, he added.
That's the kind of determination and plain talk that the 92-year-old Kansan is known for.
Dole said he would personally write letters and work the phones seeking donations. He and former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker plan to visit the Kansas State Fair this weekend to promote the memorial. Dole also is calling on former presidents, congressional leaders and cabinet officials to support the effort. He already has received commitments from NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, actor Tom Hanks and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush to join the fundraising effort.
Hanks, who starred in "Saving Private Ryan," also worked with Dole to raise money for the World War II Memorial, another project Dole said was not without controversy.
"We can't satisfy every critic. Every memorial that's been built, I believe, has had criticism. The World War II Memorial was criticized by some," he said. "They didn't like the design, and we finally said OK, we'll just go raise $170 million and build it. Now it's the most-visited memorial in D.C."
Eisenhower and Dole are two of our state's most noted and admired leaders. It's only fitting that Dole would lead this campaign. The Eisenhower Memorial has lingered for too long, but we're betting Dole is the guy who can get it back on track.
Kansas City Star, Sept. 18
Gov. Sam Brownback's feuds with schools harm Kansas
Around Kansas, teachers and schoolchildren are settling into another academic year. Bus schedules have been worked out, fall sports have kicked off and learning is well underway.
But if things are going smoothly in the classrooms, you wouldn't know that from news headlines and the grenades being lobbed by Gov. Sam Brownback's office and the Kansas education establishment.
Brownback and allies in the Legislature are ramping up their campaign to convince the public that Kansas schools have plenty of money, despite reports of early school closings last year and districts pleading for a share of the dollars set aside for "extraordinary need."
People who disagree with that assessment stand a chance of getting blasted in a group email sent to Brownback supporters by Melika Willoughby, the governor's deputy communications director. In a recent missive, she took aim at "ever-litigating" school district attorneys and decried a system that forces the state to spend "millions more on new schools, administrative facilities and technology, while educators complain about the lack of operational funds."
Apparently not content to limit the fight to the budget arena, Brownback also disclosed last weekend that he wants the controversial concept of merit pay for teachers to be part of a new school finance formula.
The hostile climate is damaging Kansas' image and taking its toll on educators.
Topeka School Superintendent Julie Ford told her board this month she was retiring to spend more time with her family. But she added, "Never before have I experienced educators in Kansas reduced to so little and so undervalued by legislators and the governor."
The rift is multi-faceted. Part of it is conservatives' fury at ongoing litigation aimed at getting the state to spend more money on schools. Then there's the determination by Brownback and his allies to emasculate the Kansas National Education Association and get rid of tenure and other teacher protections.
But more than anything else, Brownback needs for Kansas to hold down spending on education to preserve the centerpiece of his political career — the steep income tax cuts that decimated the state budget and have yet to live up to the governor's promise they would act like a jobs engine.
Brownback talked like an education governor during his 2014 re-election campaign. He praised the work of Kansas schools and teachers and bragged about all the new funding he'd put into education, even though much of the increase didn't reach the classroom.
But at his state-of-the-state address in January, Brownback blasted the school finance formula, saying it had been designed "to frustrate efforts at accountability and efficiency." He successfully proposed replacing it with a two-year block grant that schools could use for daily expenses, teacher pension obligations and capital projects. Previously, all those functions had separate budgets.
Legislative committees are starting work on a new finance formula to replace the block grants. In the meantime, school leaders who complain about funding shortages are being told the block grants contain more money than the state has ever spent on schools.
That's correct if you count pension payments, capital expenses and money spent to lower local property taxes. With those expenses added to money actually used in the classroom, Kansas is spending a record $4 billion on education.
But funding for the day-to-day operating expenses of schools has actually dropped over the last five years. The state spends $6 million less on general classroom aid than it did in the 2011 fiscal year. Its annual share of special education funding has also dropped by $6 million.
A truce in the education wars isn't likely any time soon. Kansas is still cash-strapped, a number of lawmakers are innately hostile toward public education, and legal arguments in the long-running school funding case are scheduled for November.
But Brownback does his state no service by picking fights with school districts, as he did when he accused the Garden City School District of a big spending increase that hadn't occurred.
In fact, the governor's office frequently puts out incorrect and misleading information regarding schools and funding, stoking the tensions.
It would help if Brownback would acknowledge that schools face growing expenses for health care for employees and technology needs instead of relentlessly demanding "efficiencies" from districts that have operated on lean budgets for years.
Kansas schools give the state much to be proud of. The governor should be telling their story, not knocking them down.
The Hutchinson News, Sept. 18
The link between fracking, earthquakes
The evidence now seems undeniable of a direct link between deep-disposal wells that hold waste product used in the process of hydraulic fracturing process for oil — known as fracking — and the concerning rise in Kansas earthquakes.
After studying the issue for several months, the Kansas Corporation Commission told the Harper County Commission that it plans to extend recent restrictions on deep disposal wells for at least another six months, citing a significant reduction in the number of earthquakes greater than 2.5 magnitude.
In March, the KCC put limits on wastewater disposal amounts in five areas of Sumner and Harper Counties that had displayed the most seismic activity. The restriction lowered by 60 percent the amount of underground wastewater in wells in those areas.
The order came despite a continued and somewhat mind-boggling effort by the oil industry and its supporters to deny, or at least minimize, the connection between the process of fracking for oil and increased earthquakes in south-central Kansas and northern Oklahoma.
Eventually, however, the frequency of the area's quakes and the damage they caused buildings and homes couldn't be ignored. Now, there's even more evidence to support the argument that the process of disposing of fracking wastewater is largely to blame for the area's quakes.
The evidence gathered by geologists also supports the value of independent scientific research and the importance in accepting science as, well, science.
In the case of south-central Kansas' earthquakes, it was no secret that there was a correlation between the increase in oil drilling and an increase in earthquakes. Once that was established, it was then important to determine what linked the two together. It's not enough to accept this change in the world but fail to why.
Without the research of independent scientists, important questions and answers would remain hidden, and a growing problem would simply grow worse.
The Kansas Corporation Commission geologists who studied this issue and moved to put — and keep — the restrictions in place are doing their service to the state of Kansas by looking truthfully at what, unfortunately, is becoming a growing concern in our once relatively earthquake-free state.