Gov. Steve Beshear stepped into the well-worn role of health reform defender earlier this week as he touted the launch of the next open enrollment for kynect, Kentucky’s celebrated health insurance exchange. But the program’s future – along with the state’s Medicaid expansion – face a fork in the road next Tuesday.
The two-term Democratic governor won’t be on the ballot next week, but a centerpiece of his administration’s legacy is on the line as voters select his successor. An enthusiastic champion of President Obama’s signature healthcare law, Beshear could see that initiative undone if Republican Matt Bevin steps into the top office.
Citing the demise of the Kentucky Health Cooperative in the final debates of the campaign, the Louisville entrepreneur has argued the Affordable Care Act is collapsing under its own weight, and the state should shed its insurance exchange and transition the roughly half a million subscribers who signed up through the online portal onto the federal version.
But Beshear reckons the program has won over many skeptics in an increasingly red state.
"People today have an entirely different opinion on kynect and the Affordable Care Act and what we're doing to improve the health of our citizens than they did when all of this started because they've seen firsthand what it can do for them and their families," the governor tells WUKY.
Yet the tight numbers in the governor’s race, where the opponents have staked out starkly different positions on the exchange, suggest voters in the commonwealth remain sharply divided over the issue.
A survey by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling in June showed 47 percent of Kentuckians disapprove of the Affordable Care Act while just 29 percent maintain a negative view of kynect - a disconnect the pollsters blame on the former's direct connection with President Obama, who suffers from dismal approval ratings in the state.
Critics, however, are quick to mention that the full effects of Beshear's embrace of healthcare reform have yet to be felt - in the statehouse and in consumers' pocketbooks. Some insurers on the exchange will be upping premiums during this cycle by as much as 12 percent. Penalties for the still-uninsured will double in 2016, landing at $695 or 2.5 percent of income, whichever is higher. Meanwhile, state lawmakers must locate funds to cover the state's portion of the Medicaid expansion, set to max out at 10 percent in 2021.
Both Democratic gubernatorial contender Jack Conway and independent Drew Curtis oppose dismantling kynect, though the latter favors an audit to assess its efficiency. Among the frequently-reached-for arrows in Conway's quiver is a February report by Deloitte Consulting and the University of Louisville’s Urban Studies Institute that predicted a nearly $1 billion economic windfall from the Medicaid expansion.
Bevin's take? "Bologna."
Without getting specific, Beshear said he plans to campaign hard for Conway during the homestretch. As for the fate of kynect, he has this message for voters: "You don't have to like the president. You don't even have to like me. Because this is not about him or me. This is about you. It's about your families, your kids."