A health care bill that provides a year’s worth of state aid to help poor families buy insurance won first-round approval earlier this week in the House.
The measure also includes provisions designed to make insurance less costly for workers who already have it and to make sure that Kansans can keep their existing coverage longer when they lose or change jobs.
But it’s not the sweeping package of 21 initiatives proposed by the Kansas Health Policy Authority and endorsed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. And senators, who passed their bill last week, voted against the insurance subsidies for poor families.
House members advanced their bill on a voice vote, and final action is expected Tuesday. Negotiators for the two chambers will draft the final version of a health care bill.
The House bill was the product of a compromise between Democratic leaders, who want to guarantee that the state starts providing aid to poor families, and Republican leaders nervous about the potential cost in future years.
“It’s a positive step forward,” said House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, a Greensburg Democrat.
Despite the scope of the Health Policy Authority’s plan, which would phase in a $330 million increase in spending on health programs over five years, some Republicans thought it lacked important elements.
For example, they want to simplify rules under which small companies can set up health insurance plans so that employees deduct their share of the premiums from their income for tax purposes. Such a setup effectively cuts the cost of insurance for workers by 15 percent, but it can be complicated for businesses.
The bill contains those provisions, as well as one mandating that employers offer workers who leave their jobs the same health insurance coverage for 18 months, if those former workers pick up the entire cost. State law mandates six months now.
“This is a big step forward on those issues,” said Rep. Jeff Colyer, an Overland Park Republican and surgeon who is heavily involved in health care issues.
Not all House members liked the compromise. Rep. Jim Morrison, an optometrist, said competition among health care providers simply isn’t competitive enough.
“The real problem is, we’re still not getting to the cost of health care,” said Morrison, a Colby Republican. “I don’t like any part of this bill.”
Sebelius and her fellow Democrats have been frustrated that the Legislature’s GOP majorities have not stuck closer to the authority’s plan. Legislators formed the authority in 2005 to review health care issues and administer some of the state’s social service programs.
But the authority proposed increasing tobacco taxes. The tax on a pack of cigarettes initially would rise by 50 cents a pack, to $1.29, and keep rising to keep up with inflation. Legislators never seriously considered the idea, blocking a key source of money for the authority’s plan.
The House bill represents a fair compromise, said Marcia Nielsen, the authority’s executive director.
In terms of overall spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the House plan and the authority’s plan appear close, at about $23 million.
“It’s not everything we wanted, but, of course, it’s a significant first step,” Nielsen said.
Legislators authorized the insurance subsidy program last year, but said the aid wouldn’t start until 2009.
The first to get it would be about 8,500 parents whose household incomes are half or less of the federal poverty level, about $8,800 for a single parent with two children.
But last year’s law called for an expansion of that program until it applied to parents whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level, with an average annual subsidy of about $2,800.
Many Republicans balked at that potential cost. Senators’ health care bill blocked the start of the program.
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