If the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services doubts the accuracy of its list of thousands of Kansans who are waiting for services to help them cope with physical disabilities, there’s only one reasonable response: Get to work and verify the information on the list.
The waiting list was in the news last week when Gary Haulmark, commissioner of community services and programs for KDADS, declined to answer legislators’ questions about the program on the advice of attorneys. That advice was based on the fact that the federal government has been investigating complaints that Kansas is violating the civil rights of people who are waiting, sometimes for years, for state assistance. In some cases, Olmstead complaints have been filed, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states must provide services to people with disabilities to enable them to be more integrated into the community.
Legislators participating in the public hearing were dumbfounded by Haulmark’s response. Considering the state’s responsibility to provide and fund these services, their reaction seems justified.
To help explain the situation KDADS Secretary Shawn Sullivan met with the legislators the next day. He assured them that questions about the waiting list had not yet resulted in a formal U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Moreover, he said, the department has real doubts about the waiting list, which has now grown to 3,462 people.
Sullivan said his department recently had contracted with a call center to contact people on the list and only 377 were located at the numbers the department had on file. Of those, 63 no longer needed services. In more than 1,100 cases, he said, contact numbers had been disconnected, the person no longer lived at that address or the number was incorrect.
“That made us question even more the integrity of that waiting list,” Sullivan said.
That’s a valid concern, but just because people couldn’t be reached at years-old phone numbers or even at the same addresses doesn’t mean they don’t still need help. Perhaps they couldn’t afford to pay their phone bills or had to move in with another family member. There is no reason to assume that the majority of those who couldn’t be reached no longer need help. In fact, the Topeka Independent Resource Center reported just the opposite experience when KDADS asked the center to review its own list. The Topeka center was able to contact half of the 177 people on its list within two weeks. About a dozen no longer needed services, but the majority indicated they did.
Sullivan is right that it’s hard to assess the waiting list problem if the state isn’t working with an accurate list, but simply hiring a call center isn’t enough. The state needs to put out the word to agencies and applicants and develop a system for updating information on the waiting list. This probably is a problem that started long before Sullivan was on the job, but it’s his problem now. The only solution is to dedicate the necessary staff time to formulate an accurate list that will allow both state and federal officials to make informed decisions about this problem.