The Kansas Senate narrowly shot down an attempt Wednesday to put Medicaid expansion into play, striking a blow to one of the best last chances for expansion supporters who hope to pass a plan this session.
Lawmakers returned to action after a three-week hiatus and confronted a maneuver from Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who forced lawmakers to take action on legislation that previously passed the House. Hensley's motion fell one vote shy of the 24 votes needed to pull the bill out of committee.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said they prefer to wait until after the session has concluded to give attention to a Medicaid expansion plan that could be considered next year.
"I'm not saying no," Denning said. "I'm saying this policy isn't ready."
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who made expansion a top priority, singled out the GOP leaders for stonewalling attempts to bring the matter to a vote, even though a majority of legislators support expansion.
"There are only two senators — Susan Wagle and Jim Denning — who are preventing a vote on this bill," Kelly said. "There are two senators who are preventing 150,000 hardworking Kansans from having access to health care."
Studies predict the extension of health insurance to more low-income families would add 130,000 children and adults to the KanCare program, as Medicaid is known in Kansas. Uncertain cost projections indicate the program would have a yearly impact of nearly $50 million on the state budget before accounting for tax revenue from a $1 billion increase in federal funding.
Hensley's gambit was a longshot — even if the motion prevailed, a second vote requiring support from 27 senators would have been necessary to place the bill on the chamber's calendar — but forced a rare debate on Medicaid expansion by the full chamber.
Sen. Ed Berger, R-Hutchinson, said he was voting in favor of Medicaid expansion to support small rural hospitals and constituents who overwhelmingly support expansion.
"I'm voting for the welfare mother who finally got a job only to discover she was not eligible for KanCare," Berger said. "I'm voting for the 45-year-old woman who cannot afford to see a physician about a lump on her breast, which ultimately metastasized. I'm voting yes for the asthmatic child whose parents cannot afford health care insurance. I'm voting yes for the pregnant woman who was abandoned by her husband and cannot afford prenatal care and a late-term miscarriage depriving her of having that son that she desired."
Democrats voiced frustration with the inability to vote on the bill itself, which only would need a simple majority to pass. If this were "truly a democracy," said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, Medicaid expansion would pass.
The failure to advance a bill in the Senate doesn't put Medicaid expansion to rest. Other avenues remain, including efforts by Democrats to force expansion into an appropriations bill.
“I’ve said from the beginning of the session that Medicaid expansion is an issue that could be involved in kind of the endgame in terms of how we get out of here," Hensley said. "We still have to pass a budget. In fact, that’s the only thing we have to do between now and the adjournment of this session."