Will the U.S. Department of Justice put the hammer down on Kansas? That’s the question after a meeting last week about Kansas’ long waiting lists for services for people with disabilities. If the Justice Department does take action, it will be for good reason.
More than 5,000 Kansans with developmental or physical disabilities have qualified for services but are on waiting lists. Many of them have been on the lists for years.
Advocacy groups and families have long argued that the waiting lists violate a disabled person’s right to live in the “least restrictive environment,” a right supported by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Since 2009, they’ve filed more than 600 complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights.
HHS officials met last week with officials from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, which is currently in charge of services for the disabled.
SRS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha described the meeting as cordial and said that SRS would continue to work with HHS. But advocacy groups are hoping the meeting was a prelude to federal action for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
If that happens – and action could still be months or years away – it could be costly.
Georgia had to spend nearly $100 million over the past three years on additional services for the disabled as a result of a settlement with the federal government, the Kansas Health Institute News Service reported.
“Kansas had better be paying attention,” said Deirdre O’Brien, an advocate of the developmentally disabled in Georgia. “Let me tell you, the Department of Justice isn’t fooling around on this.”
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom told The Eagle editorial board that HHS is working with the state on the waiting lists and the Justice Department is monitoring their progress. Grissom said in a recent statement that the Justice Department goal “has always been to remove obstacles and avoid unnecessary delays in providing needed services.”
De Rocha defended SRS and blamed the waiting lists on funding shortfalls.
“SRS is acting in good faith,” she told KHI News Service. “I believe we are doing a good job with the resources that are being provided.”
The state certainly has faced a difficult budget challenge in recent years. But now that the economy is recovering, Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature have shown little interest in using growing state revenues to reduce waiting lists. Instead, they want to cut taxes.
The Justice Department is unlikely to view that as acting in “good faith.”