The Curious Case of Kansas


Posted by Errol Pierre

On April 28, 2009, Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama Administration as the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It was one month and five days after the President signed his landmark healthcare legislation into law. Sebelius’ primary task would be to lead the massive implementation effort of a very complex bill with multiple phased in milestones that run through 2018. Throughout her first two and half years she has been vocal about her commitment to transparency and affordability for the American healthcare consumer. She is no stranger to the underlying issues in our system. In fact her dealings with healthcare started in America’s heartland way before this cabinet appointment. It started in Kansas; the Sunshine state. Ironically, the same state where President Obama’s mother grew up.

There’s No Place like Home

After receiving a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Kansas, Sebelius moved to Kansas and pursued politics. This led her to an eight year stint as the state’s Insurance Commission from 1995 to 2003. It was historic for Kansas. Sebelius was the first woman to ever hold the post. She was later profiled as a public official of the year in 2001 noted for her balance between tough regulations and her promotion of business. In full manifestation of her principles, she publically battled healthcare giant, BlueCross BlueShield of Kansas. She successfully blocked the sale of the company to an even larger out of state insurance conglomerate noting her determination to keep healthcare costs low for Kansans. The move was unprecedented and proved to be very timely. It happened one year before the Kansas gubernatorial election of 2002. Sebelius would win that election handedly with 53% of the vote.
Despite her victory, she was a Democrat governing in a bright red Republican state. Nonetheless she reached across the aisle and signed several bipartisan healthcare reform bills in her first two terms. Her work increased the number of health professionals in underserved areas, expanded health coverage for children, and relaxed Medicaid eligibility rules covering more Kansan families. She also established the Kansas Business Health Policy Committee which found ways to the lower the number of the uninsured and increase the number of businesses that offered health benefits to their employees. The committee’s most important work however was the creation of a program that provided health premium assistance to low and modest waged employees ensuring affordability.

We’re not in Kansas Anymore

The Governor’s work on healthcare quickly caught national attention. She also publically supported Obama’s healthcare legislation prior to her cabinet post noting benefits the bill would have on her state. 13% of Kansas lacked health coverage but she believed those 360,000 Kansans could be covered through Obama’s bill. So it made perfect sense for Obama to have Sebelius continue her work on healthcare but on a much larger stage. Rather than worrying about the coverage of 2.8 million Kansans, as head of HHS, she now worried about 49 of the 308 million Americans that lacked insurance and the 40 or so insurance companies across the country she now had the power to regulate.
Sebelius brought along her expertise. Kansas had the prelude to health exchanges – the staple of the healthcare reform legislation. Health exchanges create a marketplace where individuals and small businesses can shop for coverage similar to the way they purchase airplane tickets from online websites. Subsides are also made available through these exchanges to anyone who cannot afford coverage. Exchanges must be in place by 2014 and will be equipped with navigators and a toll-free support line to assist with enrollment questions. HHS recently launched a 50 state version of such a website on November 21st (www.HealthCare.gov). As a former Governor, Sebelius realized that execution of exchanges would be a huge undertaking for the states though. So to nudge tem along, her office provided grants to states that act early. More than $241 million was awarded to seven states that were called early innovators. Secretary Sebelius’ own home state of Kansas was one such recipient; winning a $31.5 million grant

Ding-Dong Reform is Dead

After Sebelius’ departure from Kansas though, things quickly began to change. Her successor, Mark Parkinson, indicated he would not run in 2010. Sam Brownback, a Kansas household name, won the election convincingly with 63% of the vote. As a Republican Senator for Kansas prior to winning, Brownback was one of the strongest challengers to federal healthcare reform not only voting against the bill but calling for its repeal.  One of his first acts as Governor was a very public and symbolic gesture. He returned the $31.5 million grant Kansas received from Sebelius’ office prior to his election.  It was a politicized move that reiterated his firm belief that healthcare reform placed a heavy financial burden on states just like Kansas. The reasons are surprising.

Mandates Are Costly - Kansas already requires thirty seven different health benefits be added to every health plan sold in the state regardless if the consumer wants it or will use it. Mandates like the coverage for Alzheimer’s disease regardless of a person’s age, or the coverage of child annual check up’s for policy holders without children, increase the cost of healthcare for everyone. Additionally, in 2014 when exchanges are implemented; Kansas will not receive federal funds for any mandated benefits that exceed the federal ones. This could potentially be a budget crisis for Kansas if not managed properly. Brownback would prefer to have consumers build their own health plans allowing the free market to dictate what sells and what does not.

Subsidies Shift Costs to the States – Brownback also fears that exchange subsidies will spur employer ‘dumping’. There are about 70,000 businesses in Kansas but the healthcare reform law only requires that roughly 7,800 of them offer health coverage because they are considered large employer. The remaining smaller employers representing close to half a million Kansas workers will not have to offer coverage even though their employees will face financial penalties if they are uninsured. Since these employees will receive lower prices through exchanges, the incentive for small employers to offer insurance in the state will naturally decline, a worry for the Governor. Kansas already has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation at 6.2%. Yet the uninsured rate in the state is more than double that.  Kansans are already working for employers that do not offer insurance and exchanges have the potential to widen that gap.

As a result of these issues, Brownback has yet to introduce a health exchange bill for his state; but he’s not alone. Only 14 states currently have legislation passed. However inaction by a state could prove to be costly. Kansas runs the risk of defaulting to federally facilitated exchange which would essentially give power to Sebelius to create an exchange in his state. Brownback acknowledges this ironic twist of events in a letter sent to Sebelius’ office with signatures from 19 other governors stating that unless he receives complete flexibility in handling healthcare reform, he vows to not to act at all.
Brownback has even questioned whether the healthcare bill infringes on the rights of the people of Kansas. In another letter signed by 27 other governors, Brownback strongly requested President Obama to speed up the ruling from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law. The court is due to make its ruling by next summer, but in the meantime the Governor has has taken matters into his own hands. On May 26, 2011, he signed bill HB 2182 into law. The bill created the Kansas Health Care Freedom Act which sets out to protect the rights of Kansas citizens to either participate (or not participate) in any healthcare system freely. It is clearly a preemptive move attempting to block the portion of the healthcare reform law that would require citizens of his state to purchase health coverage from a private insurance company.  Despite all these actions, Kansas has made some progress with regard to healthcare reform. A sanctioned work group of leaders from government and the private sector discuss the implementation of several provisions of the reform bill monthly.  Their work thus far can be view at http://www.ksinsurance.org/consumers/healthreform/hcr.htm.

Errol Pierre works at a large insurance company focused on business development, sales, and strategy for employee benefits. He is currently pursuing a degree in Health Policy and Management with a specializing in health finance. He can be reached at errol.pierre@nyu.edu

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