TOPEKA — A former Senate majority leader blamed the state’s failure to expand Medicaid in 2020 on religious anti-abortion lobbyists, with the pivotal bill “single-handedly torpedoed” by a Kansas City archbishop.
“So if you were an opponent of Medicaid expansion, then he’s your guy. If you were a proponent, you’re mad at him,” Denning said. “He single-handedly torpedoed the bill because he said, ‘You can’t vote for Medicaid expansion until the abortion amendment passes with the public.’ So he killed it. It never came out of committee.”
A spokesperson for the Kansas Catholic Church and leader of a Medicaid expansion advocacy group disputed comments made by Denning about the fate of Medicaid expansion in 2019 and 2020, when Denning controlled the Senate’s legislative calendar.
Alan Conroy, executive director of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, conducted the interview with Denning on April 13. The Kansas Oral History Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving state history. The project released several new interviews with lawmakers as part of a series on the Statehouse.
Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he objected to an earlier Medicaid plan passed by the House in 2019 because it contained “lousy” financial policy. Then-Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, needed 24 votes to force a vote on the bill over his objections.
“He ended up getting 23,” Denning said. “The reason why he only got 23 was I was majority leader.”
Denning said Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly would come to his office, attempting to convince him to move forward with this Medicaid expansion plan.
“She was really mad at me,” Denning said. “I think she cracked the door one time when she slammed it.”
Kelly spokeswoman Brianna Johnson said this account was not accurate.
“Gov. Kelly doesn’t slam doors,” Johnson said. “What the former Senate majority leader got right, however, is that the governor is relentless in her pursuit of Medicaid expansion and will meet Republican leaders whenever and wherever — including in their own offices — to figure out how to pass legislation supported by nearly 80% of Kansans.”
Denning said he told concerned lawmakers in 2019 that he would bring an alternative forward in the 2020 session.
“I worked all summer putting the bill together,” Denning said. “I had about 2,000 hours. I had worked on it for many years. So the bill, it ended up being Senate Bill 252. It had 33 sections. Only 5% of the bill was Medicaid; 95% of the bill was health care reform on the commercial side. It was all the things that I wanted over 30 years of knowing what needed to be fixed.”
Denning worked out the bipartisan deal with Kelly. But Republicans, outraged by a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that established a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, were focused on placing a constitutional amendment on abortion before voters.
Senate President Susan Wagle and anti-abortion forces attempted to use the Medicaid expansion deal as leverage to secure Senate approval of the constitutional amendment, according to Denning.
Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said Denning was wrong to blame Naumann. But Weber also said the church wanted the inclusion of the amendment as a provision of its support for Medicaid expansion.
“Senator Denning’s statement that the Archbishop Naumann was single-handedly responsible for torpedoing Medicaid Expansion is simply not accurate,” Weber said. “The public record is clear that the Kansas Catholic Conference, in January at the beginning of the 2020 legislative session, testified in support of Medicaid expansion with the provisos that the legislation included conscious protections for health care workers and the people of Kansas were provided the opportunity to vote on the Value Them Both amendment.”
Republicans gained a supermajority advantage in both the House and Senate in the November 2020 elections. The Legislature approved the constitutional amendment ballot question in 2021, with a provision to place it before voters in the August 2022 primary election. Kansans rejected the amendment by an 18-point margin.
Meanwhile, Democrats in both chambers have been unsuccessful in attempts to insert Medicaid expansion proposals into various bills.
April Holman, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, said the failure to expand Medicaid has had serious consequences over the years.
“We have seen poll after poll showing that Kansans overwhelmingly think that we should expand, and yet when the issue gets to the Statehouse, there is an absolute brick wall that we run into,” Holman said. “We can’t get a hearing. We can’t get bills that are moved out of committee. We can’t get a clean vote on expansion. And it seems very disconnected from the will of the people and very disconnected from the intention of the democratic process.”
Holman said Denning had the opportunity to expand Medicaid and didn’t take it.
“I think that it’s really ironic, because he had the opportunity to be the hero on this issue,” Holman said. “And if he had worked the bill or allowed it to be worked or voted on in 2019, we would have so many people across the state of Kansas who would be healthier today as a result.”
During the Oral History Project interview, Denning said he wasn’t optimistic about the future of Medicaid expansion absent a significant shakeup to the Legislature.
“All that work was all down the drain,” Denning said. “It may never come back unless the Legislature changes like it did in 2016. But I don’t think anybody would take the effort that I did to build Senate Bill 252. If it ever does happen, it won’t be robust like that. It was very comprehensive. It still stings a little bit.”