Kansas Highway Patrol officers on Tuesday forcibly removed 23 vocal and defiant protesters who demanded passage of Medicaid expansion and blocked entry to legislators at the Senate chamber.

The protesters, who already had chanted for two hours at the third floor’s center railing, expressed outrage that Senate Republican leadership has so far refused to bring a bill to the floor that would provide health coverage to an additional 130,000 Kansans.

KHP officers at the direction of Tom Day, director of legislative services in the Capitol, marched protesters to a ground-floor holding area. None of the individuals removed from the third floor was handcuffed, arrested or cited for trespassing or disorderly conduct, but KHP plans to forward information on the incident to the district attorney in Shawnee County.

’Right to be heard’

John Shively, with Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, was among protesters hauled away during a 45-minute standoff that began when the Senate prepared to gavel in.

"I didn’t do anything wrong," he said while being led away by KHP. "This is absolutely inappropriate. I think people have the right to be heard."

He went back upstairs when released by officers to rejoin the protest in proximity to where Topeka minister Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan had just been led away. In 2019, she caused a stir inside the Senate chamber by interrupting debate on a bill to express support for Medicaid expansion by singing until taken into custody.

"I hope they heard us. We’re not going away until this gets done," she said.

Some of the protesters sprawled on the floor outside the Senate chamber, including individuals with disabilities who set their wheelchairs aside. Others locked together to form a blockade at the Senate’s double doors. Security staff helped legislators and staff members step around and over the human barrier.

Day loudly admonished protesters, who ignored him or chanted louder.

"I need you to leave," he screamed while challenging picketers. "Make an aisle."

One by one, officers told the protesters they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. When the protesters refused, they were taken away.

A place of business

KHP public resource officer Donald Hughes said the people were escorted out after declining to voluntarily depart. None was rushed away, in order to avoid potential injury, he said. Wheelchair users were helped off the marble floor by officers.

"We wanted to make sure we’re not violating anybody’s civil rights, their First Amendment rights. Yet, this still is a place of business," Hughes said.

The confrontation punctuated a protest that began at 12:30 p.m., two hours before the Senate was set to gavel in. Participants in the demonstration, organized by the Poor People's Campaign, surrounded the railing at the center of the third floor. They sang, chanted, stomped their feet and banged inflated red tubes together.

"People are dying. Shame on you," the protesters yelled. "We want a vote. Do your job."

They carried signs that read "the war on the poor is immoral" and "health care is a human right." Their T-shirts read: "This is what democracy looks like," "Expand Medicaid now" and "free hugs."

"We want to make sure that more people are able to get Medicaid services so other people in the position I was in are able to get the transplant or surgeries they need," said Andrew Rausch, an Independence resident who received a heart transplant through Medicaid two years ago. "There are a lot of people in this state that are not able to get the medications that are beneficial to their survival."

Rausch said he was prepared to go to jail because "it would be wrong of me to take someone else's heart and not give the good fight for other people to have that same ability."

Wagle standing firm

Some of the protesters carried signs that targeted Senate President Susan Wagle, the Wichita Republican who is seeking her party's nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. Wagle has repelled all efforts to advance Medicaid expansion this session.

"We are grateful for our law enforcement who ensured legislative business could be safely conducted so we could do our jobs for the people of Kansas," Wagle said.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, forged a bipartisan compromise with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to expand Medicaid to Kansans who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level. They unveiled their plan with a second-floor news conference shortly before the session began in January.

"We keep running into legislative games and road blocks and last-minute procedural things," said Mike Oxford, a Lone Star resident who participated in the protest. "It appears that the bipartisan bill that we were promised — with the big kumbaya on the second floor with Gov. Kelly and Majority Leader Denning and everybody — bipartisan bill, 22 votes, it's all ready to pass, and now it's dead. And it's dead because of one person's U.S. Senate run, and we don't think that's acceptable."

Medicaid expansion would serve an estimated 130,000 Kansas adults and children and would unlock federal funding to pay for 90% of all Medicaid costs.

Wagle has leveraged support for Medicaid in her fight to secure an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would clarify it contains the right to an abortion. The proposed amendment fell four votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed in the House in a Feb. 7 vote.

Vote will come

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, said he supported the picketers’ demand for a Senate vote on Medicaid expansion and expected that to happen at some juncture in the 2020 session.

"I think the Senate will reach a point where we will have the vote. I think we have to," Longbine said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the demonstration reflected public frustration with the decision of Wagle and allies to stifle debate on Medicaid. The Senate should take up the bill endorsed by the governor and sponsored by 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats, he said.

Anti-abortion advocates contend the combination of a hypothetical future ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court, expansion of Medicaid and failure to pass the abortion amendment will allow state funding to be used on abortions.

"This is the people's house, where every opinion is heard," Wagle said. "The opinion I have heard loud and clear is that Kansans do not want their tax dollars to pay for abortion."

Kirk Fast, a protester from Ozawkie, said Medicaid expansion would be cost effective for the state.

"We still have to pay regardless," Fast said. "People either accessing emergency rooms, people losing work, children losing opportunities. And people not having access to preventative care, which would ameliorate a lot of their problems. We're throwing money away just from that, let alone the federal money that we're not receiving that we're paying in with our taxes."

Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Democrat from Lawrence, watched the initial part of the protest from a balcony above and applauded protesters for making their voices heard.

"I bet you they're enjoying it," Ballard said. "They have a message. People have been demonstrating for years, and I think that's what they're doing. This is something they want. They're taking the time to do it. They've come to their Capitol — because this is their Capitol — and this is how they let us know what they want."

Rep. John Eplee, a Republican physician from Atchison who supports Medicaid expansion, said the earlier demonstration was "impressive."

"It just continues to amplify the same narrative we've been hearing for two to three years," Eplee said. "I'm not surprised. I expected something like this in this session."