Farm Bureau plan to become law without Gov. Kelly's signature

Kansas House Insurance Committee Chairman Jene Vickrey, right, R-Louisburg, confers with Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, during a debate on an insurance bill sought by the Kansas Farm Bureau, Friday, April 5, 2019, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Lawmakers have approved the bill, which allows the Farm Bureau to sell health coverage to its members that doesn't comply with federal mandates. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
By  | 

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW/AP) -- A bill that allows the state’s Farm Bureau to offer its members health coverage that does not satisfy the Affordable Care Act will become law – but, Gov. Laura Kelly isn’t going to sign it.

Saying she has “serious reservations,” Kelly announced Friday that she will let the measure be enacted without her signature. The Democratic governor expressed concerns over whether the Republican-backed bill would prevent people from getting healthcare because of pre-existing conditions and noted, because only two other states have adopted similar laws, she cannot be sure of the long-term impact.

“New ideas always carry a certain level of risk,” she said. “I believe the potential risks of this legislation can be mitigated if they are coupled with a stable, secure, proven healthcare option: Medicaid Expansion.”

Kelly added she supported the "larger vision and shared goal" of the bill's proponents and would let it become law, rather than veto it, in the spirit of compromise and "challenge(d) legislators to join me in this good-faith effort, meet me halfway, and enact Medicaid Expansion before the 2019 legislative session adjourns."

The bill had passed both chambers with veto-proof super-majorities. It received overwhelming support from GOP legislators, but faced strong opposition from Democrats. The Kansas proposal is patterned after a Tennessee law in place for decades, and Iowa enacted a law last year.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) commended the bill passing into law, saying it will take a “great step” toward increasing competition and reducing the number of uninsured Kansans.

“The rising cost of health insurance is the largest threat that our farmers and ranchers face today,” she said. “I commend the Kansas Farm Bureau for working to find an affordable alternative especially one that won’t fall under the disaster of Obamacare.”

Passing the bill was among the last significant actions Kansas legislators took before starting an annual spring break set to last until May 1. They put off a vote on a proposed $18 billion-plus budget for the state fiscal year beginning in July until after the break.

Some Democratic critics of the Farm Bureau bill tried unsuccessfully to block its passage by appealing to rural Republicans who support expanding the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy in line with the Affordable Care Act. The House passed a modified version an expansion plan from Kelly last month, but the Senate has yet to take it up.

Farm Bureau officials said they expect about 42,000 people eventually to take its, promising lower rates than plans complying with federal mandates. They believe the takers would be individuals who either have no coverage or struggle to pay for individual coverage.

Kansas has seen the number of individual coverage plans offered through the federal ACA marketplace decline to 23 for 2019 from 42 in 2016, according to the Kansas Insurance Department. While average rate increases for 2019 were smaller than in past years, they’ve sometimes previously topped 25 percent, according to annual reports from the department.

Republicans repeatedly have cited premium increases as a reason to repeal the ACA since Trump’s election in 2016, but a drive in Congress to do it stalled when they couldn’t agree on a replacement. Trump this week deferred another push until after the 2020 election.

The Farm Bureau’s new coverage would avoid state regulation because the new Kansas law simply would declare that it’s not insurance.

Critics said companies offering traditional health insurance coverage would face unfair competition. They also focused on how Farm Bureau would be able to set higher rates or reject coverage for people who have pre-existing medical conditions, something the Iowa law allows.

To drive home their argument that legislators don’t know yet what a Farm Bureau plan might cover, critics said the lack of regulation would allow it to pay for elective abortions. A 2011 state law prohibits such coverage in group health plans, requiring people to buy separate abortion policies.

Supporters of the bill — many of whom strongly oppose abortion — brushed aside the criticism as desperate.

Farm Bureau officials have said they pushed for permission to offer health coverage because members are asking for more choices.

“They are clamoring for some kind of solution,” said Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas who also supports Medicaid expansion. “The potential consumers for this product are begging us to do it.”