A group of Kansas legislators and the Catholic dioceses are threatening to withhold support for Medicaid expansion unless Kansas also takes steps to limit access to certain kinds of health care. The move unfortunately tangles the health and welfare of thousands of low-income, working Kansans with a political lightning rod, creating a no-win proposition that most harms Kansas families struggling to make ends meet.

Expanding Medicaid in Kansas would help an estimated 130,000 adults and children stuck in a medical coverage gap. These Kansans, who mostly work at low-wage jobs, make too much to qualify for Medicaid under the current requirements but not enough to afford private insurance. Medicaid expansion would cover this population, making sure all Kansans can afford health care and providing a desperately needed cash infusion to our rural hospitals, nursing homes and primary care clinics.

Passage in the coming legislative session is vitally important to the future health and economic prosperity of our state.

Last week, a joint House and Senate committee passed a motion that would prohibit Medicaid expansion, if passed, from increasing access to abortion, and allow health care providers to refuse to provide health care, like birth control, that conflicts with a provider’s personal beliefs.

Lee Norman, a physician and secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, shared well-founded concerns in the committee that religious exemptions could justify physicians refusing to provide emergency care and make it more difficult to recruit providers to the state.

Everyone has the right to follow their sincerely held religious beliefs, but protecting a provider’s choice to refuse health care must be carefully balanced with the rights of patients. The exemptions as outlined in committee are so broad as to allow providers to refuse virtually anything they find objectionable, regardless of how much that objection impedes care, which is not a balanced approach that protects patients.

Patients should not be forced to navigate their provider’s religious beliefs to access widely used, basic health care, and access to contraception is a basic part of women’s health care. Three out of every five women of reproductive age currently uses some form of contraception, and more than 99 percent of women who have ever been sexually active have used at least one contraceptive method, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

A woman’s ability to choose the time and spacing of her children is linked to healthier pregnancies, newborns and communities.

Many birth control methods require a visit to a doctor or pharmacist. A woman should be able to get birth control if her health allows it, without personal judgments delivered in the pharmacy line.

Simply finding another health care provider is easier said than done in many parts of the state. Shrinking reimbursements and bureaucratic hurdles have reduced the number of doctors willing to treat patients on Medicaid. For low-income women on Medicaid, their choice of health care providers, particularly in rural areas, can be extremely limited.

Allowing providers to refuse medical treatment is unethical, and placing hurdles in the path of Medicaid expansion to score political points is a deeply disappointing strategy.

Our legislators must do better.