TOPEKA — Rep. Bob Bethell is being remembered by friends and colleagues as a committed public servant whose warm and generous personality helped him stay above the political fray.
The 69-year-old lawmaker from Alden died Sunday in a one-car crash on Interstate 70 shortly after leaving the Statehouse and heading home from one of the longest and most acrimonious legislative sessions in memory.
Gov. Sam Brownback praised Bethell today as a man of “deep faith and passion for his family and state” and ordered flags lowered until after his funeral.
Rep. Peggy Mast, a conservative Republican from Emporia who served with Bethell on the House Social Services Budget Committee, called him “irreplaceable.”
“He was a phenomenal individual,” Mast said today. “He had such a heart for the elderly and for the disabled. He loved serving on the committees that dealt with those issues.”
Civil amid growing tensions
Bethell was a moderate Republican who lost key committee assignments when he declined to support initiatives advocated by conservative leaders in the House. Despite growing tensions between the GOP’s moderate and conservative factions, he retained his characteristic civility to the end. In the closing moments of the session, Bethell made a motion to agree to a Senate version of a bill that would have created a committee to oversee the implementation of KanCare, Brownback’s Medicaid reform plan.
Mast was among the conservatives who opposed the bill.
“I went to the mic and said, ‘I appreciate what you’re wanting to do, but I have to oppose this bill,’” she said. “Bob just looked at me and smiled. I share that story because Bob was one of those people who could agree to disagree without being disagreeable.”
The motion failed.
First elected in 1998, Bethell was respected by colleagues in both parties for his knowledge on health, aging and long-term care issues. He chaired the House Social Services Budget Committee in 2007 and 2008.
In 2009, he was named chair of a then-new House Aging and Long-term Care Committee, a position he held through this legislative session. He also served on the House Health and Human Services Committee and the Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services.
“Bob always advocated for people with disabilities and for people to have a choice to remain in their homes,” said Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas. “Just two weeks ago, he’d gone to the well and spoke about the critical need to fund the waiting list. He truly understood long-term care. I don’t know that he’ll be replaced.”
Committed public servant
Robert St. Peter, M.D., president and CEO of the Kansas Health Institute, said that Bethell’s commitment to his job as a public servant was evident during his participation in the institute’s health academy – a yearlong program designed to help legislators become more effective policymakers.
“Representative Bethell was one of the giants of health policy in our Legislature,” St. Peter said. “He was very knowledgeable about health policy issues, but always wanting to learn more. He asked tough questions and pushed hard to get to the best answers. His experience as a minister was also evident in his kind, gentle and humorous style. He will be missed by many, many people.”
Earlier this year, Bethell and Rep. Jerry Henry, a Democrat from Cummings, introduced a resolution in the House, asking the governor’s office to delay the planned January 2013 implementation of KanCare to July 1, 2013. The administration stuck with its implementation timetable, but Brownback later agreed to postpone for a year the date on which long-term care services for the developmentally disabled would be handed over to the managed care companies implementing the plan.
“Everybody you’re going to talk to is going to tell you that Bob was a caring individual. He had a big heart. That’s all true,” Henry said during a Monday interview with KHI News Service. “But his legacy as a legislator is that he always put the less fortunate first.”
Just last week, Bethell commented on the governor’s decision in a posting on a federal website that’s soliciting public input on the KanCare proposal. He wrote: “Delaying the implementation of Home and Community Based Services for the Developmentally Disabled is important. By the Governor’s action in delaying those services, it is my hope that discussions will be entered into that will lead to a well thought through plan that will serve all sectors of receiving and giving of care.”
Bethell also led efforts in 2010 to pass a so-called provider tax that used a state-imposed tax on nursing home beds to generate more than $40 million in additional federal funding, most of which is being used to underwrite quality-of-care initiatives.
“There was a lot of opposition to that,” said Cindy Luxem, executive director at the Kansas Health Care Association, a group that represents most of the state’s for-profit nursing homes. “And I have to say Bob was not afraid to take a bullet on the things he believed in and knew were important. He took more than a few bullets on this one, but that’s the way he was. He was somebody who practiced the art of compromise but never gave up the fight.”
Long career of service
Bethell grew up in Joliet, Ill., graduating from John Brown University, a private Christian college in Siloam Springs, Ark.
He became director of admissions at Sterling College in 1980. Two years later, he became a nursing home administrator and, eventually, a consultant.
In recent years, he had been a long-term care consultant for Promise Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson. He was also a Baptist pastor.
Bethell and his wife, Lorene, had been married 47 years. The couple had a grown daughter and son-in-law, who live Blue Springs, Mo., and two grandchildren.
Outside the Legislature, Bethell was well-known for his collections of antique cars and clocks.
He also was known for his propensity to wear a Mickey Mouse watch, lapel pin and ties.
“Mickey Mouse – that was Bob’s way of saying, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’” said Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican who shared a Statehouse office with Bethell for many years. “It was his way of keeping things in perspective. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re wearing a Mickey Mouse tie.”
Funeral services for Bethell will be at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Sterling Methodist Church. Memorials in his name are suggested to the Alden Community Center, P.O. Box 186, Alden 67512.
The crash that claimed Bethell’s life occurred Sunday evening on I-70 near the Paxico exit.
According to the Kansas Highway Patrol, the accident was reported at 7:33 p.m., roughly an hour after the 2012 session was gaveled to a close. The cause is unclear, though highway patrol reports indicate that Bethell’s vehicle overturned after striking several trees. Bethell, who was alone, was wearing a seatbelt.
The KHI News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Read more about the News Service.