If Gov. Sam Brownback was serious about researching and understanding some of the unique issues surrounding health care in rural Kansas, he could assemble a team of people who live in rural Kansas.
And during his State of the State address last week, Brownback announced just that - the creation of a Rural Health Working Group. But the next day the panel’s members were revealed, and of the nine members tasked with exploring the difficulties of rural health care, six come from decidedly urban areas; only three have bona-fide ties to rural Kansas. Lt. Gov. Coyler and Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook live in Johnson County; Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Susan Mosier, and Kari Bruffett of the Kansas Health Institute both live in Douglas County; Dr. Jennifer Cook and Rep. Daniel Hawkins both live in Wichita.
While a panel exploring rural health need not be comprised exclusively of rural health professionals, one would think that the group should include more people from rural communities than members from urban communities. The challenges for those areas are completely different, with different demands and patient populations - especially in the context of considering if, or how, the state should accept a federal expansion of Medicaid that rural hospitals have said they desperately need.
The timing of the study raises questions about Brownback’s true motives behind the group’s creation. This is an election year, and that means many actions by the governor and the Legislature won’t be done with even a touch of authenticity; instead they will done to delay discussion about important issues or to spring traps for some lawmakers facing a primary or general election challenger.
“I thought it was a gimmick when he (Brownback) said it,” Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, told The News. “Now that I know the members, I’m sure.”
The group’s composition and the deadline to report its findings - in early 2017 - is suspect and smacks of pure political gamesmanship. The issues facing rural health care are urgent and serious - evidenced by the closing of the hospital in Independence, a closure that might have been prevented had the state agreed to accept a federal expansion of Medicaid. And there’s little more information to be gleaned from a panel of politically connected people that hasn’t already been brought forth by independent groups, associations and foundations that have been explaining in alarming detail some of the issues faced by rural hospitals and medical providers.
Once again, the health of Kansans - especially those in rural communities - isn’t being taken seriously. Instead, its people are being used as political pawns and their health compromised in an effort to muddy discussion on a critical issue and secure enough votes to keep the “right” people in office.