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University of Kansas deal with Missouri hospital feels ‘terribly wrong’ to lawmakers

‘I can’t imagine the outrage of Missouri taxpayers if we opened up (University of Missouri) Health in Olathe, Kansas,’ says one Democratic senator

by Allison Kite, Missouri Independent
December 11, 2023

The proposed takeover of Liberty Hospital in Missouri by the University of Kansas Health System is being greeted with scorn by lawmakers from both sides of the state line and both political parties.

Leading the charge against the takeover in Missouri is Kansas City Democratic state Sen. Greg Razer, who said the idea of KU owning a hospital in suburban Missouri is “terribly wrong.”

“There are boundaries for a reason, and they’ve crossed one,” said Razer, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The Republican leader of the Kansas Senate also has expressed concern about the takeover, along with at least one member of Liberty Hospital’s board of trustees.

Earlier this month, Razer pre-filed a bill in the Missouri General Assembly that would put a stop to a proposed partnership between the University of Kansas Health System and Liberty Hospital by prohibiting hospital boards to partner with an out-of-state health system “operated by an institution of higher education” without voter approval.

“I can’t imagine the outrage of Missouri taxpayers if we opened up (University of Missouri) Health in Olathe, Kansas,” Razer said, calling the proposed arrangement “mind boggling.”

Liberty Hospital announced in May it was looking to partner with another health system to help it expand to meet growing demand in the Kansas City suburbs north of the Missouri River. In October, it announced it had chosen KU.

The two health systems have signed a letter of intent but are still in negotiations, and the terms of the deal are not yet available. But Liberty Hospital CEO Dr. Raghu Adiga said in an interview Friday that KU had pledged to continue the services the hospital provides, including cardiothoracic surgery and a level-two trauma center. 

Adiga said those are rare for a hospital Liberty’s size.

“They put the patients first just like us,” Adiga said, “ensuring high-quality health care that we can provide right here in town.”

In a video announcing the deal in October, he said the partnership “will bring world class clinical excellence across the river to every Northlander’s doorstep.”

Razer said the arrangement would take health care dollars from Missouri to “prop up Kansas,” and feared it would be a recruiting tool for the University of Kansas. 

“Liberty has a lot of high school students. … They get great grades. It’s a great school district up there. They’re all going to be driving by a Jayhawk every day in the state of Missouri,” Razer said.

Razer’s primary objection centered on the idea of having a Kansas state institution plant its flag in Missouri.

The University of Kansas Health System is governed by the University of Kansas Hospital Authority, a board established in Kansas statute, primarily appointed by the Kansas governor and affiliated with the University of Kansas School of Medicine. But the health system hasn’t been owned by the state in 25 years. It receives no state or local tax dollars.

KU currently has more than half a dozen clinic locations in Missouri, from St. Joe to Lee’s Summit.

In a statement, Jill Chadwick, director of media relations for the University of Kansas Health System, said the organization was committed to the highest quality of care and has been recognized as among the best health systems in the nation.

“The patients and families we serve and those Liberty Hospital serves are looking for the best possible health care close to home regardless of state lines,” Chadwick said. “They come to our health system because they need answers, and we can help them. We are proud to offer the care they need.”

Missouri Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, shared Razer’s misgivings about the arrangement.

“That would be my concern from Missouri: Will a state-owned Kansas hospital put forth the necessary resources for a hospital in Missouri that does not serve any Kansas taxpayers,” Hoskins said.

Even knowing KU doesn’t receive Kansas tax funds, Hoskins said his concerns remained.

Chadwick said the health system “strategically reinvests its revenue back into our health care facilities, technology and all of the communities we serve, including those in Missouri.”

Across the state line, Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, expressed frustration to fellow members of a confirmation oversight committee in November.

“Going outside the state when you have … 29 struggling hospitals inside the state of Kansas that probably could have benefitted from an arrangement like that,” Masterson said.

Masterson did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, called Masterson’s concerns about struggling Kansas hospitals “disingenuous.”

“I wish that Sen. Masterson was more concerned with offering and having access to health care and having conversations about expanding Medicaid to help with access in Kansas,” Sykes said.

Sykes said she, of course, wants Kansas businesses working in Kansas.

“But at the end of the day, I think we have to look at what is best for society as a whole and working forward to that instead of kind of this zero-sum game,” she said.

Myron Neth, a member of Liberty Hospital’s board of trustees and a former Republican state lawmaker, also objected to the partnership, saying the board didn’t give enough consideration to proposals it received from other health systems.

Neth said KU is a “quality health care organization” with good leadership. That’s not the source of his objection.

But, he said, there’s nothing in the tentative agreement between Liberty and KU to ensure money generated by the Missouri hospital stays in the hospital district — or the state of Missouri. He doesn’t like the idea of a Missouri public subdivision being turned over to the citizens of Kansas.

“There’s just kind of something weird about that,” Neth said.

Neth said he wasn’t out to stop the deal.

“My goal has been to make sure that we get the best deal for the taxpayers,” he said.

Neth said the hospital’s leadership was rushing to get a deal done to avoid “anything adverse coming from the state.”

Adiga said the hospital needed to think about what’s best for the patient and wouldn’t “drag myself into border politics.”

William Jewell College president Elizabeth MacLeod Walls said in an interview the legislation proposed to stop the deal between KU and Liberty was “ridiculous.”

William Jewell, located in Liberty, sends its nursing students to Liberty Hospital for clinical experience. And it has a partnership with the local school district to allow high school students who are interested in nursing to train to become a certified nurse assistant.

MacLeod Walls said the partnership with KU would only enhance William Jewell nursing students’ educational experience.

Beyond that, she noted that Liberty is a triage hospital for a lot of rural communities in northwest Missouri.

“Just imagine when it’s KU Health System and their reach and their resources and their ability to Life Flight and do all of that really important stuff that, right now, Liberty Hospital can’t do,” she said.

MacLeod Walls said she thinks opposition to the deal makes up a “vocal minority.”

“Our community is choosing world class care and opportunity for students and for the community over a for-profit entity that’s going to throw a bunch of money at the county,” she said.

Adiga said the hospital hopes to finalize an agreement with the University of Kansas Health System in early 2024, giving Razer’s bill little time to get through the Missouri General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 3.

The “New Liberty Hospital District” and “New Liberty Hospital Corporation” have hired eight Missouri lobbyists since the beginning of the month.

“They’re going to be rushing,” Razer said, “and I think we will, too.”

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