By Jason Hancock

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has tapped House Speaker Todd Richardson to run the state-run health insurance program for the poor.

Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, will take over as director of MO HealthNet, the agency that oversees Missouri's $11 billion Medicaid program. He will begin his new job Nov. 1. He was already leaving office at the end of the year because of term limits.

His new salary will be $225,000. As speaker, Richardson was paid $38,400 per year.

"Missouri is incredibly fortunate that one of its most respected policymakers has chosen to continue his service to our state by tackling one of the most important challenges our state faces," Parson said. "Providing accessible, quality healthcare to our citizens is crucial to further growing our workforce development."

Richardson has earned bipartisan accolades during his three years as the highest ranking legislator in the Missouri House, leading the chamber during a tumultuous time that began with resignation of then-House Speaker John Diehl over an inappropriate relationship with an intern and culminated with the effort earlier this year to impeach former Gov. Eric Greitens.

"I have respected Todd Richardson for his integrity and his willingness to work across the aisle," said Democratic state Rep. Kip Kendrick of Columbia. "As he becomes Missouri's new Director of MO HealthNet, I look forward to working with him in that same spirit of bipartisanship and dedication to improving access to healthcare for all Missourians."

Richardson helped pushed through an avalanche of GOP priority legislation, from tougher regulations on labor unions to tax cuts. And although he fell short on one of his signature issues, a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, he oversaw a rewrite of the House's intern and sexual harassment policies aimed at improving the culture in Missouri's Capitol.

He is also a longtime champion of expanding the number of Medicaid patients who are covered by private managed care companies.

Richardson's former chief of staff and longtime political adviser -- David Willis -- stepped down last year from his legislative job in order to lobby on behalf of the managed care industry.

Richardson and Willis were roommates in Jefferson City during the last two legislative sessions.

Managed care in Missouri has been a contentious issue in recent years, culminating in 2015 when the state's budget was amended to shift roughly 200,000 Medicaid recipients to privatized managed-care plans.

MO HealthNet has not had a permanent director since 2016. The previous director was a doctor. Richardson is an attorney.

Before becoming speaker following the resignation of John Diehl, Richardson built his reputation on handling high-profile -- and complicated -- legislation.

Asked about his proudest legislative achievements by The Star shortly before his first legislative session as speaker, Richardson pointed to an overhaul of the state's beleaguered second injury fund for workers hurt on the job and a constitutional amendment placing limits on the governor's authority over the state budget.

House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, will serve as interim speaker until the legislature convenes again in 2019. He was already chosen by his GOP colleagues to succeed Richardson next year.

(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)