Protesters displayed massive banners in the Capitol rotunda Wednesday declaring four House and Senate Republican leaders had "blood on their hands" for not expanding access to Medicaid health care services for more than 130,000 low-income adults and children.
The banners, 24 feet high and 10 feet wide, were marked by dozens of handprints in red paint targeted Senate President Susan Wagle, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins with a plea to broaden access to health care through Medicaid under provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
"Kansans are dying because they're choosing to deny Medicaid expansion," said protest organizer Thea Perry, who lives in rural Leavenworth County. "Making sure of proper care of Kansans is deeply important to me."
Statehouse employees pulled down the signage within 5 minutes. The banners, featuring a Twitter hashtag #ExpandMedicaid, were dangled from fifth-floor railings overlooking the rotunda as the Senate assembled and after House members convened.
A Capitol Police officer banned three Kansas State University students from the Statehouse for one year for their part in the demonstration.
"People are dying, and if this is the consequence I have to face to make sure someone else has access to critical health care, then so be it," said Jonathan Cole, one of the students.
The Republican-led House last week voted 69-54 to approve Medicaid expansion legislation, but Senate GOP leadership has yet to bring that measure to a vote. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly proposed extension of Medicaid services in Kansas. On March 30, 2017, then-Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed Medicaid expansion legislation passed by the Senate and House. His veto was overridden by the House, but not the Senate.
Wagle, the Wichita Republican Senate president, had no immediate comment on the protest. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he supported Medicaid expansion but wouldn't have participated in the banner presentation.
"It's not unprecedented in this building that we would have protests by people who feel passionately," Hensley said.
Ryckman, the House speaker and an Olathe Republican, said the unusual method of communication wasn't particularly alarming, because "it's people's free right to expression."
Hawkins, the House's majority leader, said Medicaid expansion was a goal of socialist agitators, the banner demonstration violated Statehouse policy and participants in the protest should be considered extremists. Hawkins opposes Medicaid expansion.
“Supporters of socialist health care don’t care about the facts," said Hawkins, of Wichita. "They want to push towards a (U.S. Sen.) Bernie Sanders-endorsed, socialist health care plan where the government tells you exactly what you get. No options. They don’t have the facts on their side, so they resort to extremism."
Cole said it was great to see Hawkins call him an extremist because "that means we got under his skin."
Cole and Perry were joined by Topeka Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan and K-State students Katie Sullivan and Nate Faflick. They carried the banners into the Statehouse inside tote bags.
The students said a Capitol Police officer approached them after the demonstration while they waited to talk to a reporter. The officer took them to a holding room, where he recorded names from their driver's licenses and told them they were banned from re-entering the Statehouse for one year.
"I guess cops can do whatever they want," Sullivan said. "I was acting on my right as a citizen to protest issues that are near and dear to my heart."
Sullivan, the president of Kansas Young Democrats, said she appreciated support she received after the protest. However, she was bothered by comments from former legislator Josh Svaty, a Democrat who challenged Kelly in last year's gubernatorial primary.
"These are D.C. tactics," Svaty said. "Cheap Instagram moments. Terribly counterproductive. KS is better than this. KS needs to #ExpandMedicaid, but as a minority we achieve our goals through strategy and dealmaking. Brute force usually backfires."
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said he wasn't convinced in-your-face messaging improved prospects of a Medicaid bill reaching the governor's desk.
"I think that is unfortunate because we have to rely on that leadership to help, and I don't think that's going to make them any more likely to want to help," Sawyer said.
In July 2018, a task force created by then-Gov. Jeff Colyer recommended the Legislature fully expand Medicaid. Colyer's task force was created to consider solutions to substance abuse problems.
Sen. Gene Suellentrop, the Wichita chairman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, recommended to Wagle that a special committee be appointed to study Medicaid expansion ahead of the 2020 legislative session. The panel would consider options for expanding eligibility for Medicaid assistance and the financial impact on the state government.
In response to Suellentrop's letter, the top Democrat in the Senate said Wagle ought to instead order that a special committee meet during the Legislature's break from April 8 to May 1 to discuss "if further study of medicaid expansion is necessary." Hensley also said the Legislature should vote on Medicaid expansion before adjourning the 2019 session.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would pay 90 percent of expansion costs in each state. The proposal by Kelly would cost the state $50 million annually, but the House version imposed a fee to offset most of the state's cost.
Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, said the Capitol protest was evidence of Kansans' demand for access to quality and affordable health care and the growing financial challenges faced by rural hospitals absent Medicaid expansion.
"I shows how desperate the situation really is and how disconnected some folks in this building are with their constituents," Hodge said.