March 9, 2022

Expanding KanCare would strengthen rural health care, rural communities

This commentary by Health Fund President David Jordan on strengthening rural health care through KanCare expansion originally appeared in the Wichita Eagle on March 9, 2022.

Kansas is a rural state with nearly one-third of the population living in rural communities. As Kansans we take pride in self-reliance and taking care of our own.

Yet Kansans living in rural and frontier areas are more likely to be uninsured than those in more populated communities. Kansans living in frontier communities have the highest uninsured rate in the state (12.9%). When it comes to health care and sustaining rural health systems and communities, we need more than self-reliance. We need health insurance.

Many of our uninsured neighbors are hardworking Kansans who earn too much to qualify for KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and too little to qualify for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. In fact, a single parent of two kids earning more than $4.00 an hour earns too much to qualify for KanCare.

These hardworking Kansans are our neighbors. Kansans like Jim, an uninsured farmer who enjoys working with crops and large machinery. He lost his health insurance after a seasonal job ended. Getting insurance now is beyond his means.

He’s dealing with diabetes and an injured foot. The bones were broken, but Jim hasn’t been able to get it addressed. He calls it a “Catch-22.” He was hurt and needs money to get well, but he can’t work to make money because of the injury.

Without health insurance, Jim is scraping by and going without regular care.

Emergency room care is often the only option for uninsured Kansans like Jim. But hospital bottom lines and viability are threatened if uninsured patients can’t pay bills. Currently, 70 rural Kansas hospitals are financially vulnerable and categorized as at-risk of closing, more than in any other state.

Rural and frontier towns rely on hospitals for health care and to anchor communities.

According to the Kansas Hospital Association, in 2020, 12% of Kansas employment was in the health services sector. The health care sector was the fifth largest producer of total income and of total sales.

For health and prosperity, a sustainable health system is crucial to the future of our rural regions and our rural way of life.

Kansas can take an immediate step to strengthen rural health systems and communities by expanding KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Multiple studies show that hospitals, particularly rural ones, are at significantly higher risk of closure in states that have not expanded Medicaid. A 2018 study published in Health Affairs found “Medicaid expansion was associated with improved hospital financial performance and substantially lower likelihoods of closure, especially in rural markets and counties with large numbers of uninsured adults before Medicaid expansion.”

Expanding KanCare would cut our uninsured rate in half. Expansion would boost hospital finances by covering 25% of the uncompensated care in rural hospitals and 44% in frontier hospitals.

Kansans know expanding KanCare is the right thing to do. Expansion has broad support across geography and political party. A new survey finds almost 8 in 10 Kansas voters (78%) support expanding KanCare.

All neighboring states have expanded their Medicaid programs. Expanding KanCare would keep us competitive — adding nearly 23,000 new jobs to the state’s economy and increasing economic output by $17 billion.

Expanding KanCare would strengthen rural health care and help ensure rural Kansans get the health care they need while improving their economies. The time to expand is now.

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© United Methodist Health Ministry Fund