Former Kentucky Governor Isn’t Ready To Let Successor Shutter State Health Exchange

CREDIT: AP Photo, Timothy D. Easley

With his wife Jane, right, looking on, Kentucky Gov.Steve Beshear answers a question from a reporter during his final press conference Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015.

It’s been a little over a month since former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) left office. But with his new successor eager to shred the health care reforms he championed, Beshear isn’t leaving quietly. Instead, he’s created an organization to make sure the exchange created under Obamacare, called Kynect, remains the gold standard among the nation’s state-level marketplaces.

“I was hoping, quite honestly, to ride off into the sunset to move on to other things,” Beshear told ThinkProgress. “But my conscience won’t let me do that. We now have every single Kentuckian having access to affordable health care. And I want to make sure it continues.”

Beshear announced his new organization, dubbed “Save Kentucky Healthcare,” at Thursday press conference. The organization will focus all efforts on educating people on the importance of Kynect and the real damage that current Gov. Matt Bevin (R) could inflict on the state’s current health landscape if he follows through with his threat to shutter the program.

Bevin doesn’t just want to cut Kynect. The Tea Partier spent his gubernatorial campaign promising to roll back Obamacare altogether — which would undo the state-level marketplace where residents can purchase private insurance plans, as well as shrink the state’s Medicaid program where low-income people can access public insurance.

Bevin’s attack has softened since he announced his run for office. While he’s still told the federal government he’ll pull Kynect, the governor is no longer saying he’ll completely roll back the state’s Medicaid expansion. Instead, he’s looking into requesting waivers from the government to charge Medicaid enrollees premiums. But Beshear is still concerned about Bevin’s power to potentially undo the gains that have been made in Kentucky.

According to Beshear, the mission of his new counter-organization is simple: “Right now, every single Kentuckian, for the first time in history, has access to affordable health care,” he said. “Our goal is that every single Kentuckian still has access to affordable health care.”

Dubbed the “one health exchange success story ” by Forbes, Kentucky’s creation of Kynect — along with its expansion of Medicaid — remains a rarity among anti-Obamacare red states. But Beshear managed to tweak a usually contentious program into a symbol of bipartisan state pride applauded by residents on both sides of the aisle. By framing Kynect as a state-led initiative, and dropping the “Obamacare” label, conservative residents quickly backed the program. According to a December poll from the Kaiser Foundation, 63 percent of Kentuckians have a favorable view of the Medicaid expansion, and residents are more likely to view Kynect favorably than unfavorably (42 percent versus 28 percent, with 29 percent saying they don’t know enough to decide).

This bipartisan support may flow from the state’s quickly shrinking uninsured rate. Since Kynect’s 2013 initiation, the state — which used to have some of the worst health outcomes in the country — has seen its uninsured rate plummet from 20 percent to just 7 percent. In 2015, Kentucky led the nation with the largest drop in uninsured residents in any state. Coupled with the success of expanding state Medicaid, which Beshear said created 12 thousand state jobs in the first year, it’s difficult to paint Obamacare’s reforms as anything but a success story in the state.

So why is Bevin fighting to tear it all down?

Like many members of the Tea Party, his motives appear to stem from a deeply-rooted hatred of any Obama-founded program. “Closing Kynect would begin to free Kentucky from this financially ill-advised program and leave Obamacare management in the hands of the federal government,” Bevin pledged during his campaign.

In reality, the “financially ill-advised” program costs state taxpayers nothing. Kentucky received $253 million from the federal government for the development of Kynect, and private insurance companies pay for the system’s operation. If Bevin pulled Kynect, the feds would take back the $57.5 million in unused federal funds — and the entire move could cost the state anywhere from $23 million to $25 million, according to Beshear.

And with or without a state-run exchange, Beshear added, residents will still have to apply for insurance through a new marketplace created by the health care reform law — meaning the costly switch would ultimately do very little to change the state’s involvement in Obamacare, which appears to be Bevin’s biggest complaint.

Beshear said he’d hoped Kynect was cemented enough to continue and expand with ease after he left office.

“Unfortunately, the statements from the incoming administration don’t reflect that kind of attitude,” he said. “We worked too hard to benefit Kentuckians with health care and I’ll be darned if I’m going to walk off and let somebody destroy it.”