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Governor, HHS official to discuss waiting list

— Leon Rodriguez, director of the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday to discuss federal concerns about the state's growing waiting list for services for the disabled.

A Brownback administration source today confirmed the meeting, though there was no official acknowledgement of it from any of three administration spokespersons contacted by KHI News Service. Rodriquez also may meet with top officials from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and the Kansas Department on Aging.

Another source familiar with the federal investigation that sparked the visit said the Brownback administration has asked HHS to give the state six months to come up with a plan for reducing the waiting list.

Hundreds of disabled Kansans have filed complaints with the federal government over the waiting list, claiming its length and duration violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal government in the last two years has stepped up enforcement of the ADA.

Rodriguez is expected to deny the state's request for more time to deal with the waiting list issue, the source said.

Currently, more than 3,400 people with physical disabilities are known to be on the waiting list. Two- and three-year waits are not unusual. About that many more developmentally disabled persons also are on a waiting list for services. SRS officials have estimated it would cost the state about $73 million to eliminate the waiting lists and the Legislature this year has shown little interest in spending additional dollars to reduce the lists.

The Senate approved a budget bill that included another $1.2 million to move 60 physically disabled people off the waitlist but the House budget did not include those dollars. Budget negotiators currently are trying to resolve that difference among many others.

Advocates for the disabled have argued that the waits violate a disabled person’s right to live in the “least restrictive environment,” a right upheld in a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Olmstead v. L.C.

They've said that since 2009 they’ve helped 630 people file so-called Olmstead complaints with the HHS Office for Civil Rights.

“The potential here is that the feds are going to tell the governor that the state’s actions are going to have to be modified, and that the feds are going to oversee that modification so that it’s done in a way that complies with Olmstead,” said Rep. Bob Bethell, an Alden Republican and chair of the House Aging and Long-term Care Committee.

“The feds are not coming here to say, ‘OK, great, you don’t have to do anything about the waiting list,’” he said. “That’s not going to happen – not after the waves they’ve been making in other states and not after the waves they’ve made here in Kansas.”

Earlier this month, Bethell asked SRS officials to brief his committee on the status of the administration's discussions with HHS. But the committee didn't learn much.

“Both parties to the discussion have agreed to a strict confidentiality clause, so there’s not a lot that I can say,” SRS Deputy Secretary Gary Haulmark told committee members.

But twice last summer, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said HHS was close to citing Kansas for not doing enough to help disabled people live in community settings rather than in institutions.

The state, he said, either would have to expand its network of home- and community-based services or face the likelihood of federal officials filing a lawsuit in federal court.

“This is a big deal guys,” Grissom said, addressing a July 21, 2011, meeting of the Topeka Human Relations Commission.

Then last month, federal officials met privately with Kansas welfare officials in Kansas City to discuss their concerns.

Since President Obama took office, the U.S. Department of Justice has joined or filed more than 25 lawsuits alleging discrimination against the disabled in 17 states.

In Georgia, the state has had to spend close to $100 million over the past three years on additional services for the disabled as the result of a settlement with the federal government.

“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. They’re pretty serious.”

The KHI News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Read more about the News Service.