Kansas Wouldn’t Expand Medicaid, Denying a Lifeline to Rural Hospitals and Patients – The Intercept

On a Friday afternoon in late March, some of the most powerful people in Wellington, Kansas, crowded into the office of physician Faustino Naldoza. The civic leaders, were trying to prevail upon state Sen. Larry Alley to side with them in a vote the following week. The state legislature would be deciding on whether to overturn a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback of an expansion of the state healthcare program called KanCare — otherwise known, unfortunately for its prospects, as Medicaid.

Kansas had long rejected the expansion of Medicaid authorized by the Affordable Care Act, until, that is, President Barack Obama left office, and the legislature voted to accept the federal money. The expansion was a lifeline to towns like Wellington. Across Kansas, and throughout much of the rural U.S., small hospitals have been closing. In 2017, Wellington’s Sumner Regional Medical Center joined a growing list of more than 600 rural hospitals that, according to 2016 report by health analytics firm iVantage, are at risk of shuttering, potentially leveling blows to local economies and leaving residents without nearby emergency services and accessible routine care.

Rick Schon at the Chamber of Commerce meeting that takes place each week with residents and local business owners to assess the health of business in town and local events. Wellington, KS. July 20, 2017.

Rick Schon at the Chamber of Commerce meeting that takes place each week with residents and local business owners to assess the health of business in town and local events. Wellington, Kansas. July 20, 2017.

Photo: Alex Thompson

Clifford Bickel sits in front of his house. He rarely travels anywhere because he requires an oxygen tank to breathe after smoking cigarettes for much of his life. Wellington, KS. July 17, 2017.

Clifford Bickel sits in front of his house. He rarely travels anywhere because he requires an oxygen tank to breathe after smoking cigarettes for much of his life. Wellington, Kansas. July 17, 2017.

Photo: Alex Thompson

Expanding Medicaid, according to Sumner Regional officials, would bring in an extra $750,000 a year, enough to keep it afloat. Alley had nonetheless voted against the expansion, but it passed without him. Then Brownback vetoed the bill, and Alley’s vote became necessary to override the veto.

In Naldoza’s office, according to an account in Sumner Newscow, a local news site, and interviews by The Intercept, town leaders brought every argument they had to bear on Alley.

Wellington’s mayor, Shelley Hansel, recalled an injury to her young son, wondering if he would have even survived if the facility hadn’t been so close by. J.C. Long, president of the town’s Bank of Commerce and himself a former firebrand Republican lawmaker, told Alley that “good policy should trump good politics.” From his perspective as a banker, a struggling hospital was better than no hospital —and if the hospital closed, the community would suffer through job losses (Sumner employs 130 people, according to Stacy Davis, the Director of Economic Development for Sumner County).

Also present were officials from GKN Aerospace Precision Machining, one of the town’s leading employers, who explained that their workplace insurance premiums would jump, because insurers don’t look kindly on factories with no emergency room anywhere nearby. What’s more, recruitment is difficult in towns without hospitals, they said, and absent one in Wellington, the company would consider moving elsewhere.

That Monday, the House fell three votes short of the number needed to override, so the Senate never even needed to vote.

Seth pushes his son, Owen, in the backyard. Seth takes Owen and his younger brother into Wichita to receive pediatric care. Many in Wellington attribute Sumner Regional Medical Center's financial trouble to the fact that many of the town's residents choose to receive medical care elsewhere. Wellington, KS. July 16, 2017.

Seth Henton pushes his son, Owen, in the backyard. Henton takes his children into Wichita to receive pediatric care. Many residents in Wellington attribute Sumner Regional Medical Center’s financial trouble to the fact that many of the town’s residents choose to receive medical care elsewhere. Wellington, Kansas, July 16, 2017.

Photo: Alex Thompson

Jason takes a break from trimming bushes on his property. When I asked him about the problems with the local hospital, he simply replied "we're keeping it alive." There is currently a half-cent sales tax in the city of Wellington whose funds are used to support the city-owned hospital and keep it open. Wellington, KS. July 16, 2017.

Jason takes a break from trimming bushes on his property in Wellington, Kansa on July 16. When asked about the problems with the local hospital, he simply replied “we’re keeping it alive.”

Photo: Alex Thompson

The looming closure of Sumner Regional Medical Center stands as a potential disaster for many Sumner County residents.

Tagging clothes for her volunteer post at the Presbyterian Church thrift shop on a summer afternoon, Betty Farley expressed her fear that the closure could have a lasting impact on the community. But for the nearby hospital, the mother would not have been able to deal with her daughter’s treatment that has required both emergent and routine care over the last 15 years. The nearest hospital would now be 30 minutes away. For residents caught in a medical emergency, this could mean a costly ride in an ambulance or worse, not receiving that care in time.

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