Parkinson Focuses on Need for Long-Term Health Care Solutions

Clara Ritger
National Journal

Perhaps the latest credential in health care—one that is shared by the top official at the Health and Human Services Department and the head of the American Health Care Association—is the governorship of Kansas.

Mark Parkinson, who served as the 45th governor of Kansas, first met Kathleen Sebelius, the state’s 44th governor, when they served as state representatives from opposing parties.

They worked together in the early 1990s to raise the driving age in Kansas from 14 to 15. But they went their separate ways after leaving the state Legislature, with Parkinson going on to serve as the Republican state party chair and Sebelius making a name for herself as the state insurance commissioner.

Parkinson had, in fact, decided to close the door on his political career when he left his post in 1996, first to go back to practicing law and later to manage the assisted-living facilities he and his wife were opening in the state.

But on April 1, 2006, they sold their business. One month later, the Sebelius-for-governor-of-Kansas campaign came knocking to see if Parkinson would agree to run alongside her for lieutenant governor.

“Kathleen’s people called me—I didn’t have people for them to call—and said, ‘Kathleen has this interesting idea that maybe you guys could pair up,’ ” Parkinson said.

He agreed and switched parties to join the Democrats.

They won. It was smooth sailing until 2008, when Sebelius was vetted for vice president. But once that passed, Parkinson said, they never thought she’d return to Washington.

“Kathleen did not intend to come back to D.C.,” Parkinson said. “Even after the presidential election in 2008, I don’t think there’s any way she would have come back to D.C. for any position other than Health and Human Services.”

Which, he added, was out of the question because of former Sen. Tom Daschle’s nomination to the post. But after facing criticism for failing to report taxable income, the South Dakotan withdrew his name for the position.

Sebelius was quickly nominated to be the new HHS secretary, and she resigned as governor after her confirmation. Parkinson was sworn in as governor the same day, April 28, 2009, but he did not choose to run for the position in 2010. Meanwhile, Sebelius took a leading role in the president’s signature health reform initiative. The Affordable Care Act exchanges opened for enrollment Tuesday, which Parkinson called one of the law’s biggest achievements.

“Kathleen is passionate about access, and whether you like the ACA or not, it definitely solves many access problems,” he said. “I think the debate is whether it solves the cost problems.”

Parkinson has his doubts about whether the ACA addresses the cost of care. He wonders whether it will affect pricing in markets outside the exchanges.

“To me, the relevant question is not, ‘What is the cost of the new coverage?’ The relevant question is, ‘What is the cost to someone who doesn’t have to get new coverage?’ ” Parkinson said.

He said the law will, on the whole, likely work out. But Parkinson—once a mogul in the Kansas assisted-living industry—now serves as the president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the association’s National Center for Assisted Living, and he said there’s one thing he wishes the law had addressed.

“It’s a shame that there is no long-term health policy in the ACA,” Parkinson said. “The only long-term coverage people have is Medicaid when they become completely broke. It is a shame that when we were completely overhauling the health care system that we didn’t include a solution for long-term care.”

The ACA had made an attempt to solve long-term care through the Class Act, which has since been repealed because it wasn’t well executed or properly funded, Parkinson said.

The challenge the Obama administration faces, he said, is Congress’s inability to fix the trouble spots in the law.

“It’s so controversial that any attempt to open it up just derails the whole thing,” he said.

Parkinson, who is still a registered Democrat, has no intention of returning to the GOP. And he said he’s done with politics—for real this time.

“The part of the Republican Party that I was the leader of has lost,” Parkinson said. “It doesn’t really exist any more. The center has disappeared.”

He said he believes most people, like him, are moderates. But those people no longer hold the power in Washington.

“I think that partisan politics is very beneficial to the folks that fund our political system,” Parkinson said.

Where he once saw politics as a way to get things done, he now views his position at the AHCA/NCAL in the same light. CEO Update recently recognized him as one of the Top Association CEOs for 2013.

But there’s still a sparkle in his eye when he recalls his competitive days on the Kansas campaign trail.

“When I was a sophomore in college, I ran for the state Legislature,” said Parkinson, who now lives in Maryland with his wife. “I was in Wichita, I ran against a 12-year incumbent, so I went door-to-door to every house twice. I wore a three-piece suit every single day. It was one of those summers where it was over 100 degrees 26 days in a row. Even though I was completely unqualified, I only lost by 18 votes.

“People were just amused that someone would come by their house and ask for their vote,” he said.