Centers for the disabled struggle to cope with new rules

The system that helps more than 6,000 physically disabled Kansans across the state live in their own homes instead of long-term care facilities is undergoing sweeping changes that have been launched by the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.

Administration officials say the shake-ups ultimately will result in a more efficient and accountable system with potential for helping more people.

But those who deliver the services at the local level through the state’s 12 regional independent living centers say they don’t see how those outcomes will be possible given the problems associated with implementing the changes.

They also complain that they are being asked to simultaneously deal with multiple initiatives, any one of which could be difficult to execute while coping with budget cuts unlike any they have experienced since the system began developing in 1978.

“They (Brownback officials) think they have all these great ideas, and they may be great ideas,” said Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas. “But they're flying at 40,000 feet, and when it comes to implementing (the changes) in the field they don't get it. They think because it’s a great idea it’s just going to magically work.”

Administration officials have acknowledged some of the centers' concerns and say they are working as quickly as possible to resolve them.

"I recognize that many aspects of providing supports and services for persons with disabilities is undergoing change," Secretary on Aging Shawn Sullivan told members of a House committee last week. "Change is often challenging."

So many changes, so fast

Directors at various centers for independent living told KHI News Service that they are operating with deficits or tapping financial reserves even as they reduce staff or trim services and plan for additional cutbacks.

“We’ve never been in the situation we’re in now in the 18 years I’ve been in business,” said Shari Coatney, executive director of SKIL, the state’s largest independent living center based in Parsons. “This is the most dramatic that I’ve ever seen. So many changes coming so fast with so little cooperation with the people actually delivering the services, based on the idealisms of the new folks in town.”

“Our financial projections are dire,” said Audrey Schremmer-Philip, executive director of 3Rivers, an independent living center in Wamego that serves people in 10 counties and American Indians on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation. “We are currently running a deficit, utilizing agency savings to operate, while the management team and board try to determine the best plan of action. With extreme changes to how we will do business in the future, we are unclear if we should keep fully staffed … or reduce staff by a third and start a waiting list for services.”

With so many changes thrown at them at once, some of the center directors are convinced they are being punished by state officials for encouraging complaints to federal officials about the lack of services available for the disabled in potential violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Last week, the state’s top welfare officials appeared before the House Health and Human Services Committee to answer charges that they had “retaliated” against the centers.

That allegation was made by Jones in a Jan. 26 email to center directors, a copy of which ended up in the hands of Rep. Brenda Landwehr, the Wichita Republican who heads the committee. Jones later told KHI News Service that the email was not intended for a wider audience and that “retaliation” was perhaps not the best word to have used.

“I was totally blindsided by that,” she said of Landwehr’s disclosure of the email.

“Those are serious charges. I thought they (administration officials) deserved an opportunity to respond to them,” Landwehr said of the hearing about the email, which featured testimony from Sullivan and Michael Donnelly, director of rehabilitation services at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

Also at the hearing was acting SRS Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, though she did not speak.

Not a conspiracy

The two men each offered detailed responses that refuted the claim of retaliation, and Donnelly talked about the charge at length in an hour-long follow-up interview with KHI News Service.

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Tagged: medicaid, CIL, home, brownback, independent, nursing, srs, living, aging


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