Gov. Sam Brownback is correct in noting that he inherited a long waiting list for social services. But as advocates for individuals with physical disabilities point out, he is overstating his administration’s efforts to solve the problem.
The fact is that Brownback deliberately chose not to use available resources to reduce the waiting list, preferring instead to cut taxes.
More than 3,400 Kansans with physical disabilities are on a waiting list for home- and community-based services. Many have been on the list for more than two years. This appears to be a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and court decisions including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead case, which ruled that a disabled person has a right to live in the “least restrictive environment.”
The Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began an investigation of the waiting list in 2009. Last month OCR concluded that it was unable to reach an agreement with the Brownback administration and referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for possible legal action.
In response, Brownback sent a sharply worded letter to the director of OCR noting that the long waiting lists began and grew dramatically during the administration of Kathleen Sebelius, who is now HHS secretary. “Effectively, Secretary Sebelius decided upon joining the Obama administration that Gov. Sebelius and her policies were in violation of federal law,” he wrote.
Brownback also said that after his administration took office, it took “several immediate steps to reduce the Sebelius waiting lists,” such as changing a policy that allowed only one new person to start receiving services for every two who stopped getting services.
But Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas, thinks that Brownback is blowing smoke.
“The state’s own numbers don’t support the governor’s position,” she told the Kansas Health Institute News Service. “If you go back three years and look, there were 7,200 (physically disabled) people receiving services. Today there are 6,100. That’s not an increase, it’s a decrease.”
She also notes that several of the initiatives Brownback mentioned in his letter only began a couple of weeks before he wrote the OCR.
“He makes them sound like they’re a long-standing policy, but they’re not,” she said. “They’ve barely gotten started.”
Also, the total dollars allotted for the care services have decreased during the Brownback administration, KHI News Service reported, and Brownback proposed additional cuts for next fiscal year. To its credit, the Kansas House voted this week to add $5.8 million to the budget to help reduce waiting lists.
“I think it’s interesting that the governor criticized Sebelius’ waiting list but made no mention of the $22 million that he’s (proposed to) cut from the PD (physically disabled) budget,” Jones said.
And though Sebelius faced a severe budget shortfall, that’s no longer the case. The state has the money to significantly reduce the waiting list.
That’s one reason why the Justice Department likely will sue – and win.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee