PITTSBURG, Kan. — The vote felt like a blow to Suzan Emmons.
Kansas came close this week — achingly close — to expanding Medicaid to extend health insurance to low-income adults like her. The Republican-dominated Legislature had passed the bill and supporters vowed to override the governor’s veto. But on Monday, the House fell three votes short.
“I’m very angry. It’s almost hurtful,” said Emmons, 56, who makes just under $13,000 a year cleaning houses and can’t afford insurance on her own. “They don’t realize I’m not looking for something given to me. They think it’s just a bunch of bums on welfare looking for a handout. It’s not. It’s working people.”
The failed veto override also crushed hospital executives and community clinic directors who had hoped against hope for a Medicaid expansion, which would have brought in a flood of federal dollars to help pay for the care they now often deliver for free. The expansion would have covered an estimated 150,000 Kansans.
Activists, including the Kansas Hospital Association, promised to keep fighting.
“We’re not ready to give up yet,” said Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project, which has been pressing for expansion. “It’s not over until the gavel falls at the end of the legislative session” next month.
“I find it hard to believe all that momentum will die,” said state Representative Monica Murnan, a Democrat from this small town in southeast Kansas. “It will come back in another fashion.”
The staff at the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas can only hope so. This is the poorest and sickest corner of the state, and a great many adults lack health care coverage. Some 35 percent of the clinic’s patients are uninsured, CEO Krista Postai said. Many work two and three jobs but still can’t afford health insurance.
“We probably had better access to health care 100 years ago than we do today,” Postai said.
Patients at the clinic pay on a sliding scale, based on their income. The base price for a visit to the doctor is $15. But no one is turned away.
The clinic launched in 2003 in a cramped trailer divided into four exam rooms. Now, it operates out of a bright and modern 57,000-square-foot building with 50 exam rooms. It’s a few blocks from the four-lane road heading through this former coal-mining town, which is home to Pittsburg State University.
In addition to standard medical and walk-in care, the clinic in Pittsburg offers dental, mental health, and addiction services. An optometrist comes twice a week, and specialists in hepatitis C, HIV, and nephrology visit regularly. The clinic also has a lab, an X-ray machine, and its own pharmacy. There’s even a fitness room.
Postai said the sickest patients struggle when they need to find a specialist outside the clinic’s areas of expertise, like a cardiologist. Most such physicians are reluctant to take charity cases, or will accept just a few uninsured patients each month. And paying out of pocket can be prohibitive: A consultation with a specialist can cost $500 up front.
The clinic has just started with working with a telemedicine company out of Wichita that has agreed to provide access to specialists on a sliding scale. But those consultations have limited value for patients who need surgery or expensive drugs. Medicaid, Postai said, was their best bet, and she plans to keep pushing for Kansas to join the 31 other states that have expanded the program under Obamacare.
“We got really, really close. This is not the time to give up,” Postai said.
The clinic here was set up to work with uninsured patients, so Postai said it will survive even without Medicaid funds.
Rural hospitals, however, are a different story. Across rural America, small-town hospitals have been closing, or struggling to keep their doors open. The same holds true in Kansas.
Some 60 miles down the road from Pittsburg, in the town of Chanute, Dennis Franks runs the Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center. He said expanding Medicaid would have brought the hospital $1.4 million in 2018 and $2.9 million in 2019 — money desperately needed to recruit physicians and update equipment.
“It means a great deal to the hospital and the patients in this community,” he said. “Right now we’re on the bubble like other hospitals. It’s like death by a thousand cuts.”
When he vetoed expansion the Medicaid expansion late last month, Governor Sam Brownback said the proposal was riddled with flaws: “I am vetoing this expansion of Obamacare because it fails to serve the truly vulnerable before the able-bodied, lacks work requirements to help able-bodied Kansans escape poverty, and burdens the state budget with unrestrainable entitlement costs.”
Dr. Greg Lakin, a Republican lawmaker from Wichita and an osteopathic doctor, sided with the governor, in part because he expects Congress and the Trump administration to shake up the health care landscape — and he didn’t want to get locked into any decisions before that happens.
“The timing didn’t make sense,” he said.
In the meantime, residents like Sandra Powell wait anxiously for help.
A 63-year-old widow, Powell cares for her 13-year-old grandson and worries about what might happen for him if her health fails. She already has diabetes and high cholesterol — and yet didn’t go to the doctor for three years because she had no insurance, until she started visiting the community clinic. Powell lives on $721 a month from her husband’s pension — too much for Medicaid and not enough to buy insurance on her own. “I’m stuck,” Powell said.
“We survive,” she added. “That’s what it’s called. Surviving.”