Former Gov. Steve Beshear, unveiling Save Kentucky Healthcare at the Muhammad Ali Center Thursday morning
Former Gov. Steve Beshear unveiled Save Kentucky Healthcare at the Muhammad Ali Center Thursday morning. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Just two months after leaving office, former Gov. Steve Beshear announced Thursday that he has launched an education campaign to stop the rollback of his administration’s health care reforms, saying he would not allow current Gov. Matt Bevin to do so “without a fight.”

Save Kentucky Healthcare is a 501c4 organization that aims to “work on a grassroots level to make sure Kentuckians understand the impact of new Gov. Matt Bevin’s attempts to dismantle key parts of Kentucky’s health reform, while helping them fight those efforts.”

Beshear announced the new group at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, saying that while he had intended to step away from public life after leaving office, “my conscience won’t let me do that.”

“I watched with increasing concern as our remarkable progress providing health insurance to Kentucky’s families has been threatened,” said Beshear. “That troubles me, and I can’t sit idly by, because the people of Kentucky cannot afford to go backward.”

After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Beshear moved swiftly to set up Kynect — the state health insurance exchange — and expand Medicaid eligibility to those whose income is below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Mostly due to Medicaid expansion, over 500,000 people gained coverage, reducing Kentucky’s uninsured rate by more than any other state.

Last year, Bevin campaigned on dismantling Kynect and either repealing or significantly altering Medicaid expansion, and he is beginning to work on doing just that. He applied for a federal waiver to lower Medicaid eligibility and require some of those still covered to make premium payments, and is now seeking to end Kynect and transition health insurance consumers to the federal exchange.

Beshear highlighted a half dozen studies and surveys showing the success of his reforms, saying the uninsured rate has plummeted from over 20 percent to 7.5 percent, health care screenings have dramatically increased, 12,000 new jobs have been created and $3 billion in new revenue has gone to health care providers — all with a projected $300 million positive impact on the state budget in the coming two years. Though Bevin has publicly disputed the financial costs and benefits of health care reform in such studies, Beshear says Bevin is merely choosing to ignore the “mountain of evidence” that shows it has been an “irrefutable success.”

“But in the face of this mountain of evidence, he simply says, ‘I don’t believe it,’ and then continues to say that our current system is unsustainable,” said Beshear. “The evidence he cites to support that conclusion? Absolutely none, because there’s not any.”

Jessica Deis of Louisville also spoke at the press conference, saying she was without insurance until the first open enrollment under Kynect in late 2013. After her first visit to the doctor, she discovered she had cancer and was then able to get treatment.

“I was able to undergo treatment for cancer because I had coverage, and I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I’d have to feed my family or get treatment, or pay my electric bill or get treatment,” said Deis. “I just was able to get it. That’s why I’m here today, and we’re all better for it.”

Beshear said Save Kentucky Healthcare will mount online campaigns, petitions, awareness drives and engage with advocates, health organizations and elected leaders to educate the public and preserve such reforms — all while holding Bevin’s feet to the fire if he goes too far.

“Gov. Bevin is going to be held accountable for the moves that he makes,” said Beshear. “And the hard questions will be asked about the impact of his decisions on Kentucky families. The people of Kentucky deserve to know how policy decisions will impact their lives.”

Though Beshear did not mention it, 501c4 organizations have emerged as a powerful political tool in post-Citizens United America. Though they are technically nonpartisan nonprofits designed to educate the public, many have emerged as thinly veiled campaign organizations, as shadow donors pour in millions of dollars that are converted into television campaign ads. Asked if Save Kentucky Healthcare would enter the fray of election campaigns, Beshear said “there are a lot of options of what they can be involved in. We’re going to look at all of those options and make decisions as we move down the road on what else we might become involved in.”

Asked about Bevin disputing studies that show his health care reforms will save the state money, Beshear answered that “all of these organizations are not engaged in some kind of conspiracy to mislead the new governor. They’re simply looking at the facts and the evidence and coming to logical conclusions. And it’s time that Gov. Bevin step up… and give us the evidence that supports his conclusions. So far we’ve heard no evidence, because – quite honestly – there is no evidence of that.”

IL asked Beshear if such an education campaign around the need to preserve health care reforms would have been more effective last year during the gubernatorial race — by either a private group, Democrat Jack Conway’s campaign, or the Kentucky Democratic Party — as Democrats put little emphasis on the issue. Beshear paused before answering: “I have no idea how to answer that question. You’d have to look at the campaigns and ask them how they run their campaigns and why.”

Asked the same question, Crit Luallen — Beshear’s former lieutenant governor and a board member of Save Kentucky Healthcare — said the administration constantly lauded the success of their reforms, but Democrats dropped the ball during the campaign.

“Politically, I think it should have been more of an issue in the campaign,” said Luallen. “I believe that people really didn’t understand what was at risk. There was so much more at risk in Kentucky than people understood with this election.”

Luallen — who noted that health and cancer screenings have now begun to increase along with coverage and access to care — said it would be foolish for Kentucky to throw away such progress.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually turn around what has been one of our worst, most-pressing challenges: the health of our people,” said Luallen. “If you have the highest mortality rate for cancer in America as a state, how can you sleep at night if you’re unwinding an opportunity for people to get access to heath care? How can we possibly go backward?”

Bevin’s spokeswoman Jessica Ditto sent IL a statement regarding Beshear’s new organization, accusing the former governor of promoting himself while Bevin cleans up a mess he left behind.

“While Governor Beshear promotes his political legacy, Governor Bevin is focused on fixing Kentucky’s fiscal crisis after eight years of the Beshear administration increasing runaway Medicaid costs and refusing to fund the pensions of teachers and state workers to the tune of over $30 billion in unfunded liabilities,” wrote Ditto.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]