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Health care compact defended by 23 legislators

By Andy Marso for KHI News Service, Sept. 18, 2014

A total of 23 Johnson County legislators — all Republicans — signed onto an op-ed in the October edition of The Best Times, a magazine for seniors in the county, that praises the health care compact bill.

The rebuttal comes after a weeks-long disagreement between legislators who supported the compact and members of the Johnson County Commission on Aging, who wrote an article that appears on the previous page criticizing the compact for its potential effects on Medicare.

“Under no circumstance do we want to change Medicare or the benefits seniors enjoy under Medicare," the legislators wrote on page 8 of the October Best Times issue. "Our only goal is to ensure that Kansans can continue making life-saving healthcare decisions on their own — not by some faraway federal bureaucrat.”

The commission’s article, though, notes that the health care compact, if agreed to by Congress, would give the state authority over Medicare dollars. It asks whether the state might then repurpose Medicare funds during lean budget years or choose to privatize the Medicare system, as it has with Medicaid under KanCare.

"It is the opinion of the COA (Commission on Aging) that this proposed change creates a direct threat to the health care benefits of every older Kansan," the commission wrote. "The real danger is the opportunity that state officials will have to reduce or eliminate current Medicare benefits. This should be a concern for older Kansans, and for those who advocate for them."

The commission, which voted 10-2 to oppose the compact, also asks a series of five questions. These include how the state would propose to run Medicare, what expertise state officials have in that area and how a state-by-state Medicare network would work for seniors who live in another state part of the year.

The commission is a group of senior volunteers appointed by Johnson County commissioners. Commission members regularly write articles that appear on pages of The Best Times, which is paid for by federal grant money through the Older Americans Act.

The county controls publication of the The Best Times. Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias agreed to give the legislators their own page in the October issue after their attempts to convince the commission on aging to change their article or pull it entirely failed.

The legislators said they passed the compact last session with no intent to change Medicare but instead to free the state from federal health regulations tied to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

But Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger and the retiree group AARP both testified against House Bill 2553 when it was introduced, on the ground it posed a threat to Medicare.

During a Sept. 15 meeting with the commission, legislators expressed concern about the timing of the commission's article, saying it would be used by opponents of Gov. Sam Brownback before the Nov. 4 election. In their rebuttal article, legislators pointed to the statement Brownback made in signing the bill that he would oppose any cuts to Medicare.

Brownback's state budget director, Shawn Sullivan, took to Twitter to reiterate that point Wednesday.

"Stop scaring seniors about the Compact changing Medicare," Sullivan tweeted. "It won’t. Focus instead on ACA's effect on Medicare."

The legislators' rebuttal article repeats an often-cited “$716 billion cut to Medicare” that Republican opponents of the president's health reforms have tied to the ACA or Obamacare.

The fact-checking website Politifact has rated the assertion “Half-True.” The fact-checkers note that Medicare spending is not being cut and is growing.

The dollar figure cited pertains to structural changes in the Medicare Advantage program that are estimated to save $716 billion. Medicare Advantage allows seniors to opt for private insurance plans, which have proven more expensive than traditional Medicare. The $716 billion in savings come from reducing payments to those private insurers, a change that also was written into the budget proposal put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, an influential Republican from Wisconsin.

Kansas is one of nine states to join the health care compact thus far. U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, has introduced a bill in Congress to approve their exemption from federal regulations. It has garnered little action on Capitol Hill to this point.

Andy Marso is a health reporter with Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration among KCUR Public Radio, KCPT Public Television, KHI News Service and Kansas Public Radio. He is based at KHI News Service.

This story was republished with permission from KHI News Service


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