As state aid disappears, disabled Kansans struggle

TOPEKA — Leana Daniels had worked in restaurants in Kansas City, Kan., since she was 16.

In 2003, Daniels, a 47-year-old mother of three, was working as restaurant cook when an employee used greasy water to mop the kitchen. Daniels slipped and fell hard, permanently crippling her knees.

She got replacement joints but was plagued by a postoperative infection, which worsened her chronic heart disease. Now she can't work, can't climb stairs, and she falls often.

"I needed a little help," she said. "Someone to help me clean, do the laundry. I can't do all the things I used to do."

Social workers told Daniels that she qualified for a state-funded program designed to keep disabled Kansans in their homes and out of institutional care. Someone could stop by a few hours a week to do the chores Daniels can no longer do.

Yet when Daniels tried to sign up, she learned funding for the program had run out days earlier. Lawmakers had cut the funding amid the steepest revenue declines in state history.

Daniels was told to consider a nursing home.

"Go to hell is pretty much what they told me," she said.

"They'd rather pay to put me in a nursing home than pay somebody a few bucks to come help me three hours a week," she said. "You ask them for help and you can't get it. They say they'll help people. They're liars."

The budget crisis affects every state function. Students learn in larger classes. Highway projects are on hold, economic development programs hobbled, prisons shuttered. But cuts to social services threaten the very independence of the people they were created to help.

Reducing services for disabled Kansans isn't only a moral issue, advocates say. Studies show that help is most affordable when it is provided to residents in their homes. Nursing-home care is three times more expensive to the taxpayer.

Shannon Jones, the director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas, lobbies lawmakers to support programs that allow disabled people to stay in their homes.

"I've been up here (at the statehouse) for 17 years, and I've never seen such dramatic effects on our disabled and elderly," Jones said. "We're not talking about a huge amount of money, and the benefits are clear. Just minimal support is what these people need, and too many aren't getting it."

Like nearly every other state, Kansas saw revenues flatline when the economy soured. The choice for lawmakers was clear: Cut spending or raise taxes in a recession.

So far lawmakers have opted to cut more than $1 billion, the biggest spending cuts in Kansas history.

As a result:

* The rate paid to in-home caregivers, doctors and others who accept Medicaid clients was reduced by 10 percent.

* The state pulled the funding for dental care to low-income pregnant women.

* 1,500 Kansans who have disabilities — but who get no federal disability payments — were dropped from a $100-a-month cash assistance program.

* Almost 6,000 Kansans sit on waiting lists for state services.

One of them is Connor Blakley, 6, of Gardner, who was born with severe developmental disabilities. His mother, Angi Blakley, said Connor is mentally retarded and suffers frequent seizures. The only word he can say is "mama," although he likes to blow kisses to communicate with others.

Connor requires constant care. Stairways have child-proof gates. Knives and anything potentially hazardous are put out of reach.

Angi Blakley and her husband, Jason, arrange their work shifts to ensure someone is always with Connor. Angi Blakley, a nurse, works nights to be home with Connor when he's not at school.

Connor is eligible for state-covered help — help with the medical bills and an in-home attendant so his parents can get a break. They have another child to care for, 3-year-old Trinity.

There is not enough money to cover all those who are eligible, so Connor has to wait. The family used to get a $600 check four times a year, to help defray the cost of Connor's medications. The state stopped sending the checks last year.

Hundreds of other Kansans are on the waiting list in front of Connor. The only way to move up is if someone who is higher on the list moves to another state, ages out or dies.

Looking for answers

Some lawmakers say schools spend too much and should have their funding slashed. Others would target economic development programs, corporate tax credits or highway projects.

But reductions to social services are unpopular, even with the lawmakers who supported them. Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, said cuts he's had to make to social services keep him up at night.

"I understand the devastating impact those cuts had," Parkinson said. "We're going to do everything we can to reverse them.

"The very first thing I would do is eliminate the waiting lists. Unfortunately, we don't have the money to do that this year."

Lawmakers acknowledge the many studies showing in-home care for the disabled is a far cheaper alternative to nursing homes.

"It's heart-wrenching," said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "This is the front line of what government is supposed to do.... Simply put, we can't afford the same level of government we had two or three years ago."

Legislators rejected any talk of tax increases last year. This year, however, Parkinson, other Democrats and Senate Republican leaders are calling for tax increases to avoid the need for more reductions.

The state Senate last week endorsed a budget that would restore some funding to social services. But it is contingent on nearly $500 million in tax increases. Higher sales taxes, tobacco taxes, alcohol taxes and even a tax on sugary sodas are under consideration, but none has gone to a vote.

The House budget would restore slightly more funding without the need for a tax increase, but critics say the money would come from schools instead.

Meanwhile, frustration is turning to anger. As the House Appropriations Committee debated a bill Friday, a group of disabled Kansans stood in the hallway yelling, "People are dying. Shame on you."

Watching, worrying

Lawmakers return to Topeka on Wednesday to try to resolve the budget crisis, for this year anyway. Families who receive social services will be watching.

One of them is an Overland Park family who never thought they would need the help.

"I'm a single mom. I don't know how we'd get the therapies we need," said Angel Friday of Overland Park, whose 17-year-old son, Carl Van Winkle, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash a year ago. "We'd figure it out somehow."

In the next room, Carl worked with occupational therapist Lynne Wichmann to build strength in his right arm.

Carl was riding in a car with a friend in Overland Park on March 19, 2009. It was one of the last nights of spring break.

A vehicle slammed into their car's passenger side — the side on which Carl was sitting — breaking his pelvis, shattering half his face and shaking his brain.

Carl spent five months in a Nebraska rehabilitation clinic. He had to relearn how to walk, speak and swallow.

Now 17, he is back in school, and the scars are fading. His speech is coming back, though he still uses smiles and thumbs-up signs to communicate.

The therapies that Carl gets at home are funded by a state program that helps Kansans with traumatic brain injuries. But another program that would have paid for a walk-in shower, rails on the porch steps and other accessibility improvements was cut.

Friday said she worries that more budget cuts could end her son's therapy.

"I didn't even know these programs existed," she said. "Then one day you need them. Then they're the greatest blessing."