Gov. Jeff Colyer addressed a group of more than 50 people at South Central Kansas Medical Center on Saturday. Colyer gave an overview of the state’s economy, and voiced his concerns and ideas for improving health care and education.
Colyer was in Cowley County between appearances in Wellington and Wichita. Officials last week said he was going to learn more about the Ark City hospital’s primary direct care program, which offers basic health services without insurance.
Colyer was introduced by hospital CEO Virgil Watson, who quipped that he wished Coyler would support expanding Medicaid — SCKMC estimates it would received an extra $1 million in revenues under expansion.
Colyer toured the hospital, but first offered remarks to the crowd. The state has serious challenges in the area of healthcare, he said, but has a good system to build on. Healthcare has changed dramatically and the problems go much deeper than just insurance or Obamacare, he added.
Programs like direct primary care are a good example of an innovative way to deal with things, he said.
Colyer said rural hospitals across the nation are also struggling financially.
“About a third of the rural hospitals in the United States are under financial stress whether they expanded Medicaid or not,” he said. “Kansas has more rural hospitals than any other state.”
Colyer became governor Jan. 31 after Sam Brownback resigned to take an ambassadorship. Colyer, a plastic surgeon from Johnson County, is running for election and faces several opponents in the August primary.
Hospital board member Mark Paton asked Colyer what the governor’s primary role in supporting the state’s rural hospitals.
Colyer said as a doctor he understands the issues and wants to work with hospitals on a range of opportunities.
Aging doctors have also become a serious problem. The average age for an OB/GYN in Kansas is 55, and the same problem exists for nurses, dentists and other care providers.
“We need to be thinking about a whole bunch of these pieces, such as how we get more doctors and nurses,” he said.
Colyer said the local hospital is usually the largest and highest paying employer in a community. Keeping a hospital on solid ground was not only important for health care, but was also an economic development issue.
“When I started out in medicine, maybe 2 percent of the doctors were employed by hospitals” he said. “Now it’s probably close to 40 percent, so the relationships have changed and the outcomes have changed.”
Colyer also supports a 4 percent raise in state support for hospitals. He said it would be the first increase given to hospitals in many years.
“I was in the Legislature in 2006, and I know it predates that,” he said.
The increase would not solve all of the complex challenges, he said, but would make a significant change and was a good first step.
“This community has made a tremendous investment in this facility, and we’ll stand with you on that,” he said.
Colyer said the state’s unemployment rate of 3.4 percent is the lowest the state has seen in a number of years.
There are more Kansans working today than anytime in history, he said.
Colyer said more than 50 percent of the people who had been on welfare are now employed.
“Right now there are 50,000 open jobs in the state,” he said. “We have jobs looking for people, Cowley County has jobs looking for people.”
He said he wants to increase worker skill level to draw better jobs to the state.
“I want my adventurous daughters to see their future in Kansas,” he said. “That to me, in a nutshell, says where we want to be.”
Colyer also acknowledged the problems facing Cowley County, especially in the area of adequate housing. He said each county has a different set of challenges and concerns.
“We want to focus on partnering with you as a community, and on how we grow our state,” he said.
According to Colyer, the current budget estimates are looking good and he has no intention of supporting any tax increases.
He said if the state maintains a tight budget, he believes over time it will reach financial stability.
Colyer said the problem of adequate school finances has been ongoing for more than 50 years. He voted for a bill recently to increase school funding that has been mandated by the Kansas Supreme Court.
“There was a compromise that puts in $500 million dollars and stair-steps that over five years,” he said. “That way schools can plan for it, absorb it, and it doesn’t break the bank.
Colyer said the state was also preparing to help schools refocus their programs in order to help kids gain the skillsets needed for future employment.
He said there would be money in the budget to help create more technical programs to teach those skills.
Colyer also praised Cowley College for its effort to open a campus in Sumner County.
“What you’re doing in Sumner County is really important,” he said. “The work training piece is absolutely critical.”
The state has a good healthcare system, good schools and a good transportation system, Colyer said.
“I’m going to listen to you and I will put my all into moving the state forward,” he said. “As we’re going forward, I think we can be in a pretty good place.”
Ark City resident and businessman Bill Docking thanked Colyer after his remarks.
“I really appreciate that you are willing to not just listen, but that my perception is that you care more about good government than you do about just staying 100 percent true to some ideological belief, so thank you.”