Access and transportation are among the top challenges in rural health care, and part of the topics discussed Thursday among a panel at Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.

Kevin Sparks, CEO of UnitedHealthcare’s Community Plan, was part of that panel that also consisted of officials from the two other managed care organizations that oversee plans through the state’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, and regional hospital leaders and insurance companies.

Sparks, who hails from Emporia, took the helm of United’s MCO in April. UnitedHealthcare serves approximately 130,000 Kansans, which is about one-third of the market share in the state, he said.

Population declines in rural counties can create a danger of decreasing service from EMS and county health departments, Sparks said.

“When you start thinking about that, that’s immunizations, things that are important to kids,” he said.

“Part of that is care coordination that we’re going to be talking about, part of that is alternative funding sources, part of that is collaboration in some instances,” he said.

Tight budgets, while not ideal, have fostered creativity in delivering service, Sparks said.

He noted he was in Pittsburg on Tuesday, where UnitedHealthCare gave $93,000 in grants to improve health resources in that region.

A $45,000 grant to Southeast Kansas Independent Living Center will provide diabetics and those at risk for diabetes with mobile apps that provide education and information about managing and preventing diabetes.

The Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas will use its $48,000 grant to provide telemedicine to 11 sites in a 15-county area.

“That enables them to have a specialist or two in Pittsburg, and then go out and have that specialist meet with other people by Skype-based technology,” he said.

Sparks said UnitedHealthcare has fostered a good relationship with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who led the state’s effort to reform its Medicaid program. Colyer is slated to become governor when Gov. Sam Brownback steps down to join President Donald Trump’s administration. Colyer announced last week he is running for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018.

“He feels like Kansas is at the forefront of innovation in Medicaid programs,” Sparks said of Colyer, a Kansas City plastic surgeon and Hays native.

Sparks doesn’t deny KanCare, which started in 2013, can use improvement.

“If you think back to 2013, we kind of jumped in with both feet. It was tough for everyone in the beginning. You don’t go through a big change like that and not have issues,” he said.

“But over the course of the last three to four years, we’ve really been able to iron those basic sort of issues through the governor’s leadership.

KanCare expires Dec. 31, and the state is awaiting approval for a year-long extension. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid initially denied the request in early January, saying the program was out of compliance with U.S. law.

Brownback’s administration said the denial was politically motivated and hopes for approval from the Trump administration. Sparks said that approval is expected in November.

If approval is gained, Sparks said the state can expect to see KanCare 2.0, guided again by Colyer.

“I hope we can get to a point where we solve some of these problems and we’re on to the next one,” Sparks said. “That iterative nature of our business is such that we should always be continuing to improve.”