KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Northland voters did a flip-flop in helping to renew a health levy in Tuesday’s municipal election.
When the 22-cent property tax first gained approval eight years ago, it won on the strength of a 62 percent majority among voters south of the Missouri River. It only garnered 40 percent approval in the two counties north of the river, Platte and Clay.
This time around, 60 percent of Northland voters gave approval while the margin of victory south of the river increased to 82 percent.
The turnaround north of the river came through the quality safety-net services provided throughout the community, said Karen Dolt, chief executive of Northland Health Care Access, which recruits volunteer physicians to provide primary and specialty care.
“It is our neighbors, our friends, our family members getting services,” she said. “It is just the way it is supposed to be. We have helped people.”
The tax generates about $15 million annually to help cover the cost of treating uninsured and underinsured patients. The tax is on top of the city’s permanent 50-cent health levy.
The two taxes combined generate about $50 million in annual revenue, which helps fund Truman Medical Centers, ambulance services, and five safety-net clinics.
Tuesday’s election, in which turnout averaged about 12 percent north and south of the river, extended the additional health tax for another nine years.
No organized opposition emerged to the renewal. Supporters ran a “Continue to Care” campaign.
According to the latest campaign-finance statement filed March 25 with the Missouri Ethics Commission, the renewal campaign reported spending about 60 percent of the nearly $260,000 it had raised.
The Health Forward Foundation contributed $120,000 to the campaign. The committee also reported contributions from unions, law firms and health care providers.
Dolt said the additional funds provided through the 22-cent levy have allowed her organization to increase the number of annual patient visits to more than 8,000. That figure was fewer than 1,000 prior to 2005.
At the Kansas City CARE Clinic, based in Midtown, the additional tax provides about five times more annual revenue than the clinic would otherwise receive from the health taxes, said Sheri Wood, chief executive.
The clinic logs more than 17,000 patient visits a year with the help of nearly $510,000 from the health levy.
In addressing the outcome of the health tax and two other ballot questions, Mayor Sly James said, “Once again this shows me that the people of Kansas City know how to make decisions that are in the best interest of the totality.”
John Bluford, Truman chief executive, said the health levy vote was a “statement by our community that people matter.”
Thanks to the voters, the tax was renewed one year before it was set to expire.
The nine-year reauthorization is longer than recommended last year by the Citizens’ Commission on Municipal Revenue. The commission said the extension should not exceed four years.
But with all the changes underway in healthcare, including implementation of the Affordable Care Act, safety-net providers said they needed certainty in at least one funding stream.
One big question mark is whether the Missouri General Assembly will expand Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the poverty level, as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act.
The expansion seems to have little support among the Republican majority in Jefferson City, but Charlie Shields said there could be a thaw by the time the General Assembly adjourns in May.
Chief operating officer for Truman’s Lakewood Medical Center, Shields spent two decades as a Republican in the General Assembly, including holding the highest leadership post in the Senate.
In the legislature, he said, “a lot can happen in a short period of time.”
City Councilman John Sharp said if the General Assembly expanded Medicaid, the city might not have to assess the additional health levy for the entire nine years.
“We may well have to do it for that long,” he said. “I hope we don’t.”