Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback's administration on Wednesday refused to answer questions from legislators about a growing waiting list of poor Kansans with severe disabilities who are seeking assistance.
"I'm flabbergasted," said state Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, after Gary Haulmark, who is commissioner of community services and programs for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, refused to answer questions during a public legislative committee meeting.
"This is unprecedented," said state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka. "What's the secrecy about?," she asked.
Haulmark said he was advised by his agency's general counsel not to answer questions on the Home and Community Based Services program due to potential litigation.
The HCBS program is designed to provide assistance to people with physical and developmental disabilities in their homes or communities as an alternative to more expensive and confining nursing home care.
More than 7,500 Kansans are on the waiting list for services or are under-served, up from 2,075 in 2008, according to legislative staff figures.
The federal government has been investigating complaints that the state is violating the civil rights of people who are waiting for help, some of whom have been waiting for years.
Advocates for people with physical disabilities have been filing Olmstead complaints, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says states must provide services to people with disabilities to enable them to be more integrated in the community.
Ami Hyten, assistant executive director for the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, said that under Olmstead, states can have waiting lists, but must provide people with services within a reasonable amount of time.
Earlier this year, negotiations between the Brownback administration and officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services broke down. HHS then forwarded the waiting list complaints to the U.S. Justice Department, which “has made enforcement of Olmstead a top priority.”
Members of the Legislative Budget Committee had scheduled an overview of the HCBS program on Wednesday. After receiving an update from legislative staff on the size of the waiting lists, Haulmark told legislators he had been advised by the general counsel of his agency not to answer any questions.
"That makes absolutely no sense," said Vratil.
Tom Laing, executive director of InterHab, which helps persons with disabilities, said the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services has even stopped posting on its website the number of people who are on waiting lists.
Budget Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, asked Haulmark when legislators could expect to get answers to their questions since the Legislature is responsible for funding the program. Haulmark said he didn't know, so McGinn asked that Haulmark bring his general counsel to the committee's meeting on Thursday.
Kathy Lobb of Lawrence, who is with the Self Advocates Coalition of Kansas, said she hoped that projected savings cited by the Brownback administration in its proposed changes to the state Medicaid system, could be used to "get the services" to those on the waiting lists.