Speakers: Kansas loses billions without Medicaid expansion


Local News

September 24, 2018 - 11:26 AM

From left, Jon Hamdorf, director of Medicaid for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Dr. Ben Sommers, and Audrey Dunkel, vice president for the Kansas Hospital Association, participate in a forum on Medicaid. PHOTO BY MARK MCDONALD

For six years now, the issue of whether to expand Medicaid, the state/federal health insurance program for low-income citizens, has surfaced every legislative session in Kansas only to suffer defeat.
In 2017, backers were hopeful when legislators approved expansion, only to have then-governor Sam Brownback veto it.
So today, despite the fact that 75 percent of Kansans approve Medicaid expansion, it remains out of reach for approximately 152,000 of our working poor, or at least as long as it’s the responsibility of today’s current makeup of legislators. In Maine, the issue is on the November ballot. And because Kansans continue to shell out their federal tax dollars for other states to enjoy the extended insurance benefits, perhaps their patience will start to wear thin and demand that they, too, should have a direct voice in the matter. To date, Kansas has forfeited more than $2.8 billion in federal funds that would increase Medicaid’s outreach.

LAST MONDAY, health care experts met in Lenexa to argue, for the most part, why Kansas should expand Medicaid based on an in-depth study that compared health outcomes between Kansas and the states of Indiana and Ohio.
Sponsored by the REACH Healthcare Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based private foundation focused on health care,  and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the symposium discussed the study, led by Dr. Ben Sommers, an internist and associate professor at Brigham & Young Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Sommers discussed Kansas’ current plight.
More than 20 percent of our poor ages 19 to 65 remain uninsured, compared to 14 percent and 15 percent respectively for Indiana and Ohio.
Among Kansans statewide, the health insurance rate is 87 percent.
In Kansas, a family of four can subsist on no more than 38 percent of the federal poverty level, or $9,063, to qualify for Medicaid.
In states that have expanded Medicaid, their umbrellas of coverage extend to those who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,000 for an individual, or $34,000 for a family of four. (In Kansas, individuals without children do not qualify for assistance of any kind unless they are disabled.)
The difference in coverage means that in states such as Ohio and Indiana, a family never has to go without the option of affordable insurance. Either they can receive Medicaid because they make within $34,000 a year or they can apply for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, whose coverage for a family of four begins at an annual income of $32,913.
In Kansas, that $24,000 income gap for a family of four is never closed and available resources remain out of reach.
The damage to our people, our healthcare institutions, and our future, is stunningly stark compared to states that have expanded Medicaid.
The difference?
Poorer health, premature death rates, higher rates of poverty.
Think about it, if you lack adequate means, then you put off things like going to a physician or getting your prescriptions regularly filled.
“Patients who can’t fill their prescriptions or have to make one month’s supply last two months, have worse outcomes,” said Sommers. “That’s not going to manage their diabetes. That’s not going to manage their high blood pressure or heart disease.”
As a physician, Sommers said he serves as a gatekeeper.
“For those who have a primary care physician, that’s their entry point into healthcare. The alternative entry point is the emergency room or no care,” options that are much more costly to not only one’s health but also their pocketbook.

IN THEIR interviews with more than 3,000 low-income Kansans, researchers found that one-in-three respondents had put off the decision to see a physician because of the financial strain it would cause, Sommers said. For those who live in states that have expanded Medicaid, about 25 percent of respondents said routine medical care remained a financial challenge.
As to their perception of whether their quality of care might suffer under Medicaid, Sommers said respondents didn’t differentiate between that and private insurance. “They just want some kind of health insurance,” he said. “If they can get coverage, it’s less important than how they are getting it.”
Sommers referred to the state of Arkansas, which agreed to expand Medicaid but directs the federal subsidies to private insurance companies.
“Same outcomes,” he said. “The big picture is whether to expand Medicaid.”
“This is not an empty benefit,” Sommers said. “It’s actually leads to real benefits for real people.”
In states that have expanded Medicaid, there’s a 10 percent increase in diabetics getting their glucose regularly monitored.
“If you don’t check your glucose regularly, you can’t be controlling your diabetes well,” he said.
“Insurance is pathway for people getting on medications that they need for a long time.” he said.
In states without expansion, one of three patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes say they don’t regularly visit a physician.
Of the 33 states that have expanded Medicaid, visits to primary physicians have increased resulting in better health outcomes; fewer report a delay in filling prescriptions because of their cost; and fewer wait until the last minute to receive care, typically at their hospital’s emergency room.
Perhaps most importantly, Sommers said, is the positive change in people’s perceptions of their health once they have these advantages.
“Now you may ask if that matters. In fact, that’s a question I am regularly asked by policy makers: Is it worth the investment of public dollars and policy changes? Well, let me say two things: First, I’m a doctor and if you tell a patient that you don’t care if he’s feeling better, you should probably stop taking care of patients.
“And I suggest policy makers should take the same approach. If a policy leads people to feel better, that’s probably a good investment.”
The inverse is also true, Sommers said. “The mortality rate of people who say they are in poor health is five to 10 times higher than those who say they are in excellent health. So when someone tells you they are in poor health, you should believe them.”

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