TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas is joining a proposed compact with other states that hope to exempt themselves from the federal health care overhaul, and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday rejected criticism that the move will jeopardize seniors' benefits.
Brownback announced Wednesday that he quietly signed a compact bill late Tuesday and the new law will take effect July 1. The GOP-dominated Legislature passed the measure earlier this month.
The compact would let participating states remove themselves from federal health regulations if Congress consents. It was prompted by Republicans' opposition to the 2010 health care law championed by Democratic President Barack Obama. Critics view the overhaul has burdensome, intrusive and damaging to the economy.
"Those closest to the people have the best idea of what the public is wanting and needing," said state Rep. Brett Hildabrand, a Shawnee Republican pushing the compact measure. "This resets the clock, really."
The compact language is broad enough to cover Medicaid, which provides health coverage to the needy and disabled, and Medicare, which provides coverage for seniors. It would not cover health care for veterans, active military personnel or Native Americans.
The possibility that member states could seek an exemption from Medicare rules led AARP to lobby against the measure. The organization along with state Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, perhaps the only prominent Kansas Republican to publicly defend the federal health overhaul, urged Brownback to veto the measure, arguing the compact would permit state lawmakers to cut benefits for the 450,000 seniors participating in Medicare.
Praeger said the federal overhaul is helping millions of Americans find affordable health coverage, and she called the new Kansas law "wrongheaded." Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat hoping to unseat Brownback in this year's governor's race, labeled it "irresponsible" and said Brownback ignored "calls for commonsense leadership."
"We should not threaten the care of hundreds of thousands of seniors," Davis said in a statement.
If Congress approved the compact, the federal government would give each state its allotment of federal health care dollars without imposing conditions on how the money is used.
Supporters of the measure said seniors' benefits aren't in danger. Many Republicans argued the federal health care overhaul is a far bigger threat to Medicare because it was financed partly with cuts in Medicare payments to providers — mainly hospitals, health insurance companies and drugmakers.
Eight other states, including Missouri and Texas, have enacted similar legislation, according to Competitive Governance Action, the Houston group pushing the idea. The group describes itself on its website as a nonprofit that advocates state control over health care and having problems solved "by the smallest, least centralized, most local authority."
Curtis Ellis, the group's spokesman, said AARP has raised questions about potential Medicare cuts in other states and, "It's a flat-out lie." But Praeger said ignoring the potential effects on Medicare is "not being honest."
Brownback said in a statement that he'd oppose any effort by the state to reduce Medicare benefits if the compact takes effect.
"The Health Care Compact will allow states to restore and protect Medicare for generations to come," Brownback said. "Obamacare is the most serious attack on Medicare and seniors since the program's inception."
The compact proposal relies on an obscure provision in the U.S. Constitution that requires congressional approval for multistate agreements. It doesn't give the president a role, making the idea attractive for some critics of the health care overhaul.
"While the compact does not repeal Obamacare, member states like Kansas can decide what, if any, parts of Obamacare to implement," Jeff Glendening, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement Wednesday.
Critics of the proposed compact have questioned whether Congress would approve it, particularly if Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate. Praeger called the new law "just political."
"This is just a way they can tell voters, 'We fought Obamacare,'" Praeger said of the new law's supporters.