Why Medicaid expansion wasn’t much of an issue in Kansas election

by Andy Marso, KHI News Service

Topeka — Post-election soul-searching by Kansas Democrats includes disagreement over whether Medicaid expansion should have been a larger part of the party’s strategy.

The Democrats lost all statewide races for the second straight time and lost another five House seats to drop their number in that chamber to 27. The defeats were part of a national wave of Republican election wins, but they have nonetheless led to talk within the Kansas Democratic Party about what could have been done differently.

At the top of the ticket, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis focused his campaign almost exclusively on school funding, in an attempt to woo moderate Republicans. After leading in polls for months, Davis ultimately fell a few percentage points short of defeating incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback.

Joan Wagnon, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said polling didn’t indicate the Medicaid expansion issue was much of a difference-maker with voters. So the party left it up to individual candidates to decide whether to use the issue in their campaigns.

“There was a lot of discussion about the issue, but no strategy, per se,” Wagnon said. “Democrats feel strongly about that issue and felt like it should have been expanded, but Republicans didn’t see it in quite the same way. So it wasn’t an issue that would make headway for us, so to speak.”

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid eligibility, while Kansas and 20 other states have not. Policymakers in two states are considering the issue, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

A poll released last year by the Kansas Hospital Association, which favors Medicaid expansion, found that 60 percent of polled Kansans supported it.

But the KHA poll never mentioned that Medicaid expansion is part of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” and Wagnon said that makes a difference when it comes to public opinion.

“You have to understand the issue, and it’s a hard issue to talk about and explain,” Wagnon said. “What the Republicans did was they said, ‘Well, this is just Obamacare.’ When they tag an issue like that with some scary words to try to increase the negative feelings, then it’s harder to have a discussion.”

Ryon Carey, a political consultant in Lindsborg and chairman of the Democratic Party’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender caucus, said rather than avoiding the Affordable Care Act, the party should have attempted to explain its benefits to voters.

“Obama’s still president and the Medicaid expansion was enacted under Obamacare, so of course they’re going to scream ‘Obamacare,’” Carey said of the Republicans. “It would have been nice if Democrats would have actually stood up for their signature legislation in 60 years rather than running away from it. (President Harry) Truman would not have run from Medicaid expansion.”

Wagnon said Davis did express support for expansion when asked about it, and Dennis Anderson, the Democrats’ unsuccessful candidate for Kansas insurance commissioner, took a strong position in favor of it.

Down the ticket, Democratic House candidates were left to decide how the issue would play in their particular races.

Former representative Ann Mah, unsuccessful in her attempt to retake her Topeka seat from Republican Ken Corbet, said she didn’t make Medicaid expansion part of her campaign, though she supports it.

“The Legislature had painted the Medicaid expansion issue with such a broad brush,” Mah said. “People, they just say ‘Obamacare bad.’”

Nancy Lusk, a Democratic House member from Johnson County who was re-elected, said she declined to campaign on Medicaid expansion because she had limited time to try to get her message across while going door-to-door. Lusk said she chose instead to focus on the state’s impending budget crisis.

Mah said that also was the focus of her door-knocking visits. At the thousands of homes she visited, Mah said only a few people came to the door wanting to discuss Medicaid expansion.

“Those were medical professionals who knew we needed it and weren’t getting it,” Mah said. “Or they were hospital employees and their hospitals were really taking a hit.”

In Kansas, Medicaid expansion would extend coverage to an estimated 151,000 people with annual incomes up to 138 percent of poverty – about $16,100 for individuals and $32,900 for a family of four.

Increasing Medicaid coverage would decrease the amount of uncompensated care Kansas hospitals must perform each year.

Julie Menghini, a Democratic House member from Pittsburg, said she campaigned on Medicaid expansion, sending out two or three mailers on the issue in part because she knew that hospitals “really, really need to see it happen.”

Menghini said polling in her district suggested the issue would not be “a huge win” for her, but it “wasn’t going to be a negative either.” She narrowly lost to Republican Chuck Smith, a well-known high school football coach, but said she did not think Medicaid expansion was a factor.

“Frankly, my race didn’t end up being about issues,” Menghini said. “It ended up being about who can say the craziest, meanest thing about me and get people to believe it.”

Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who has expressed interest in replacing Davis as House Minority Leader, said Democrats used Medicaid expansion as an issue in the election, but “clearly not enough.”

“Candidates I talked to were encouraged to use it,” Ward said. “I think it still is a very potent issue.”

Ward said the tide is turning in favor of expansion as more Kansans hear the practical arguments for it and grow weary of the ideological arguments against it.

“The ‘This is just Obamacare by another name’ (argument), it doesn’t work,” Ward said. “People see the dollars and cents, and the opponents’ arguments are shallow. More and more people nod their head when I start talking Medicaid expansion.”

Wagnon said the need for expansion is increasing, both for low-income Kansans and the hospitals that serve them. Regardless of how the issue was treated during the election season, Wagnon said her advice to Democrats during the next session is unequivocal.

“I hope they push like crazy to get it passed,” Wagnon said.

The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute. It is supported in part by a variety of underwriters. The News Service is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy-making environment. All News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution, including a link back to KHI.org when a story is reposted online. More about the News Service is at khi.org/newsservice or contact 785-233-5443.

Anonymous donor steps up to help food pantry in western KCK

by Mary Rupert

An anonymous donor has stepped up to keep a food pantry running in western Kansas City, Kan.

Janice Witt, the CEO of the Reola Grant Civitan Center food pantry, said she heard on Monday from a donor, who wants to remain anonymous, that he and his company would fund the food pantry.

He is not a resident of Wyandotte County but lives somewhere in the region, she added, and saw the story about the food pantry on the news. He researched the situation and decided to get involved.

“He said this was a God thing, and he was supposed to step in and make this right,” Witt said. “He won’t take any credit.”

She had not previously met him or heard of him or his organization, she added. He wanted to make sure people in need have a Thanksgiving meal, she added.

Witt said the Reola Grant food pantry efforts are no longer associated with CrossRoads Family Church, and that there has been a change in the food pantry’s temporary location, to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge at 7846 Leavenworth Road.

Now the food pantry will reopen as a by-appointment-only indoor food pantry at the FOP Lodge, Witt said. There will not be any mobile trucks with drive-through food giveaways there. The Grant food pantry no longer is participating in the mobile giveaway program after the last time, when traffic problems were cited as a reason for stopping deliveries. The Reola Grant Center and mobile food pantry had been helping 2,000 families a month previously.

Those who are in need may call the food pantry number at 913-948-4040, Witt said. Currently, it is restocking, she said. While it doesn’t have enough to feed the greedy, it will feed the needy, she added.

The number of donors now is multiplying for the Grant food pantry.

The FOP stepped forward to offer its lodge building as a temporary food pantry, she said.

“The FOP has been phenomenal,” Witt said. They were contacted by several members of the community and asked to help, she added. That location now has been certified by Harvesters to have an indoor food pantry, she said.

Also offering to help was the Delaware Masonic Lodge, with a “wonderful” offer, she said. The FOP site was selected because of costs associated with operating the other building.

“Both of those places made an effort to ensure we would be back up and running by Christmas,” Witt said.

Another group from Lenexa, Kan., will be donating some turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday, she said.

Now the Reola Grant Civitan Center needs canned goods donations and is welcoming them for the indoor food pantry, she said.

“I’m just so overwhelmed with the honesty and kindness in people’s hearts,” Witt said. “You think you’re in a battle by yourself, alone and no one cares. Then out of the blue comes this tiny little light. I’m so blinded by the teeny little light in the darkness.”

Witt said the Reola Grant Civitan food pantry is still looking for a permanent location.

She said it will continue to have a thrift room, with clothing, to operate when they get the food pantry back up and running.

Witt said the new face of hunger here is that people in all areas of the community are facing need. Some of the old ideas are incorrect about where the needs are, she added.

She cited an example of a family from the western area who were doing well until they were hit by an illness, and their insurance costs skyrocketed.

Some are not used to making their food stretch.

“When the middle class go to poor, they don’t know how to function there,” Witt said.

She said she is trying to help people manage their food appropriately.

Some families and individuals, she added, currently are faced with a horrible choice between heat and food.

From 64 to 69 percent of Wyandotte County’s population lives in poverty, she said. While some of the existing food programs serve predominantly minorities in the eastern portion of the community, the reality is that many more people are needy throughout the county, of all races, she said.

She said the face of hunger has been manipulated to appear a certain way. In Wyandotte County, it is actually white, middle class, a family with two children, with people who have worked in the past year, she said. They may have a decent car. Their children receive free or reduced lunches in school. For whatever reason, they do not feel safe going to the eastern side of the city to receive a free meal, she said.

She said she wanted to have a food pantry in the Unified Government Commission 5th district because she was not aware of much assistance there, while there was already assistance in some other parts of the community.

In former days, the western part of the county and city was an agricultural area, and the needy could glean the fields after the harvest for leftover produce, Witt said. Now, with the changing nature of the area, and the institutionalization of gleaning fields by organizations that distribute food, that isn’t possible for individuals who are needy, she said.

There are four Civitan groups currently in the area, including the Civitan SOCHI group, the Heartland Helpers Civitan, Civitan Club Dotte and Civitan Orchids. SOCHI, Heartland and Dotte are the supporters of the Reola Grant Civitan Center. Kathy Godell is the president-elect of the Civitan SOCHI. Andrea Behrman is the president of the Heartland Helpers Civitan. Ron Witt is the current president of Civitan Club Dotte.

Together, the Witts have provided much of the funding for the Reola Grant Center in the past.

Witt said Civitan also is continuing its Toys for Tots program this year, Dec. 9-10 at the George Meyn Center at Wyandotte County Park, Bonner Springs. More than 200 families are already registered for the program, she said. The signup period already has passed, she added.

The Harvesters mobile food truck now is traveling to the KCKCC-TEC location, the former Walmart store at 65th and State Avenue, on some Saturdays to give away fresh produce to the needy, in an effort that is coordinated by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. The food truck reportedly ran out of food there on its first day.

The Grant food pantry no longer is associated with that mobile food truck effort, Witt added. Future mobile food distributions for KCKCC-TEC are expected to be at 1 p.m. Dec. 13 and Dec. 20 at 65th and State.

KVC helps Kansas children find forever families during national adoption month

After several children found their forever families today, a balloon launch was held in downtown Kansas City, Kan. (Photo from Jenny Kutz )
After several children found their forever families today, a balloon launch was held in downtown Kansas City, Kan. (Photo from Jenny Kutz )

by William Crum

The KVC did a major kickoff at the Wyandotte County Courthouse on North 7th Street in Kansas City, Kan., where recently adopted children with their parents released balloons in honor of National Adoption Month.

Since 2005 they have had 2,376 adoptions and 390 still waiting to be adopted in Kansas.

In Kansas last year there were 35,551 reports of child abuse and neglect. There are 6,167 children in foster care and 390 children are waiting to be adopted. The greatest adoption needs are for children 9 years and older, members of a sibling group, and children with significant physical, medial or emotional needs.

“National Adoption Day is one of the most joyful days of the year,” said Chad Anderson, president of KVC Kansas. “For the adopted parents, for KVC staff and especially for the children, is the culmination of a lot of hoping, waiting and hard work. We are thankful for the families that step up to the plate to become a permanent, loving family for children who have experienced abuse and neglect and thankful to the judges throughout Kansas who bring attention to the need for more adoptive families.”

KVC Kansas is a private, nonprofit child welfare and behavioral health care organization. The organization offers one the nation’s broadest continuums of care, and has provided foster care case management longer than any other private organization in the United States. KVC is responsible for the care of all children served by the Kansas Department for Children and Families in two regions, representing 30 countries and more of all children in the child welfare system (3000 plus). In its 44-year history, KVC has grown from a single home for boys in Kansas City, Kan., to a national organization touching the lives of more than 50,000 people each year.

After several children found their forever families today, a balloon launch was held in downtown Kansas City, Kan. (Photo from Jenny Kutz )
After several children found their forever families today, a balloon launch was held in downtown Kansas City, Kan. (Photo from Jenny Kutz )