House-Senate Health Policy Oversight Committee to start vetting Brownback decisions

A host of controversial decisions that have been made recently by Gov. Sam Brownback will be aired before legislators today.

“We need information and we need rationale for some of the decisions that have been made,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who is a member of the House-Senate Health Policy Oversight Committee.

The committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer on why Brownback returned to the federal government a $31.5 million grant that he earlier supported.

Brownback has said there were too many strings attached to the grant that would have helped Kansas implement a health insurance exchange in compliance with the federal health reform law, called the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, and vice chairwoman of the committee, said she agreed with Brownback’s decision. Landwehr said implementation of the exchange “was a moving target.” She added, “Why should we put pressure on ourselves for a piece of legislation that we don’t believe in in the first place?”

Landwehr has led the charge at the state level to oppose the Affordable Care Act. Brownback, a Republican, voted against it when he was in the U.S. Senate and has said it should be repealed. The state of Kansas is a party to a legal challenge to the law.

But Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, also a Republican, has disputed Brownback’s too-many-strings complaint, saying that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had been extremely accommodating to states that had received the “early innovator” grants to work on the exchanges.

Praeger is scheduled to brief the committee on the status of the health insurance exchange, which under the ACA would serve as a one-stop shop for hundreds of thousands of Kansans to purchase insurance and determine eligibility for coverage subsidies.

Since Brownback returned the $31.5 million grant, the administration said work on the exchange will not go forward, but Praeger has said planning continues in her agency because, under the law, the exchanges have to be in place by 2014.

On another front, Brownback is catching heat from some in his own party for signing a contract worth $135 million to overhaul the state Medicaid computer system. Brownback officials said the contract will make it easier to catch Medicaid fraud and determine eligibility for the program that serves more than 300,000 Kansans.

But critics, such as Rep. Charlotte O’Hara, R-Overland Park, said the mostly federally funded contract was just another step toward implementing the ACA. The Brownback administration has denied this charge, but state insurance officials say part of the work under the contract will be making the system compatible with the ACA. In addition, shortly after Kansas announced the contract with Accenture, the technology services company settled a $63.7 million lawsuit with the federal government. The company was accused of fraud, bid-rigging and taking kickbacks. Accenture denied the allegations but said it was settling to avoid more costly litigation.

Colyer is also scheduled to give an update on his effort to reform Medicaid, the $2.8 billion federal-state funded program. Brownback has said the state must find ways to deliver Medicaid services at reduced cuts. Critics fear that Brownback’s plan will result in more needy Kansans not getting assistance.

The committee also is expected to hear from Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. on the effect of SRS office closings on caseloads and Medicaid application processing times.

When announcing on July 1 the closing of nine SRS offices, Siedlecki said those served by the offices could travel to nearby cities or access services online.

The closure announcement caused a public uproar, and local officials in several of the affected cities, including Lawrence, came up with local tax funds to keep the offices open for at least two years.

By Scott Rothschild

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