Politics & Government

Kansas Senate disability bill sparks privatization fears

O’Donnell The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services says that a piece of legislation will enable the agency to re-establish a program for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

However, some lawmakers say the bill would enable the agency to privatize facilities and avoid legislative oversight.

SB 422 eventually passed by a vote of 31-5 Thursday after hours of debate, but only after it was amended to include a provision that would require the agency to seek legislative approval before privatizing facilities.

The bill sparked a heated debate on the Senate floor after Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who was carrying the bill, struggled to explain to his colleagues what the 13-page bill would actually do.

In October, KDADS placed a moratorium on a shared living program, which allows adults with developmental disabilities or other disorders to be placed with a care provider, such as a family member or other individual.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, asked O’Donnell what in the bill “would magically and deliciously allow us to lift that moratorium,” noting that the bill did not contain any explicit references to the moratorium or shared living.

“This allows the process to be clearly defined and streamlined,” O’Donnell said.

The answer did not satisfy Baumgardner and other lawmakers who continued to question O’Donnell about the bill’s intent and scope.

“I checked with the carrier of the bill before the debate even started. I said, ‘Is your position that (SB) 422 has to pass for the moratorium to be lifted?’ ” Baumgardner said during a break in the debate. “And he said yes. And I said, ‘Why is that?’ And he said, ‘That’s what KDADS says.’ 

Baumgardner alleged that the promise of lifting the moratorium was meant to force care providers into supporting the legislation.

O’Donnell struggled to provide answers and had to continually consult with a KDADS official who was present in the chamber to provide answers.

O’Donnell began serving as chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee last month. Asked later whether he was unprepared for the debate, O’Donnell said he would only take questions by e-mail.

Several lawmakers alleged that the bill was actually meant to enable the agency to privatize facilities. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, scrutinized a clause in the bill that she argued would give the agency broad powers to privatize.

Angela De Rocha, the agency’s spokeswoman, said that lawmakers were misreading the bill. She said the bill was meant to enable the agency to license subcontractors for the shared living program. She said the fact that the subcontractors weren’t licensed by the agency caused the moratorium to go into effect in the first place.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, brought an amendment to restrict KDADS from privatizing without legislative approval, easing the minds of lawmakers who had concerns about the bill and allowing it to pass.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3