TOPEKA — Citing the federal government's debt obligations, Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday he will return a $31.5 million federal grant intended to help implement the new federal health care law.
Kansas had applied for the money last December as part of its effort to integrate the state's complicated health insurance databases and policy networks into a user-friendly system.
The "early innovator" grant, awarded to Kansas and six other states in February, would have helped pay for an online exchange system where people could compare health insurance policies and buy one that best fit their needs.
Kansas had proposed to build a model system that could be adopted by other states striving to meet the Jan. 1, 2013 deadline for developing an exchange system.
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The deadline is part of the health care reform law approved by Congress and signed by President Obama. The Health and Human Services Department will operate exchange systems in states that don't create their own.
"There is much uncertainty surrounding the ability of the federal government to meet its already budgeted future spending obligations," Brownback said in a prepared statement. "Every state should be preparing for fewer federal resources, not more. To deal with that reality Kansas needs to maintain maximum flexibility. That requires freeing Kansas from the strings attached to the Early Innovator Grant."
State Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who is on the Joint Committee on Health Policy Oversight, called Brownback's move "unconscionable." When conservative leaders are cutting social services across the state, why would the state turn away money intended to make a more user-friendly health insurance marketplace, he asked.
Ward said exchanges have nothing to do with the controversial parts of the federal health care act, such as mandating coverage. All it does is create a marketplace similar to what many people use when shopping for a flight online, he said.
The state will still have to create an exchange system of its own or let the federal government run it, he said. "There's going to be a cost associated whether we do it or the federal grant does it."
Kansas isn't the first to reject the grant. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, came under pressure from conservatives and sent back her state's $54 million grant in April.
Kansas officials say the state will still find ways to lower health insurance costs and simplify the process of choosing the right plan.
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