Local efforts to meet needs of disabled could be hurt by budget cuts

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
There’s a Kansas program that eliminated big institutions in order to bring people home to live and work, strengthening families and communities.

In an era of political ideology that favors tax reductions, local agencies that serve both the cognitively and physically developmentally delayed are hoping to reverse expected state budget cuts for a social program that fits the conservative ideal.

They are asking the public to contact legislators for help.

Stan Zienkewicz is chief executive officer for Northview Developmental Services Inc., which uses Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services funding to provide services and advocacy for the developmentally disabled in Marion and Harvey counties.

Zienkewicz said in a press conference in Hillsboro Tuesday that NDS has helped hundreds of clients find training and jobs, and helped family members who care for them return to work as well since 1993, when Kansas closed state mental hospitals and released thousands of individuals held in them in favor of community-based assistance programs.

Zienkewicz said local economies have benefited because the former hospital “inmates” have become productive taxpayers who sometimes even own their own homes. Many family members formerly tied to their care also have become more productive tax payers. State tax money is being spent locally, too.

He also identified the less tangible benefits of happier, fitter people, who make more contributions to their communities.

Of the more than 200 NDS employees in the two counties, 12 percent, or 26 persons, live in Marion County. The agency needs another six quality employees.

NDS estimates that somewhere around a third of the 155 individuals currently being served are based in of Marion County. Although the agency frequently is identified with helping young people-as in helping to provide for special education through the five Marion County school districts-about half the clientele are persons over 45 years old.

Zienkewicz said as services are being provided, new persons are continually entering the system who need the same quality services. That is stretching an agency that already scrambles to meet state mandates.

He said he is continually gratified by local support such as that received from the Marion County Commission, but a certain level of state funding is vital.

Tom Laing, executive director for InterHab, the resource network for Kansans with disabilities, said that in the nine years since the program’s inception, inflation based on the consumer price index has risen 28 percent, state hospital employee wages are up 48 percent and private sector wages are up 49 percent. Meanwhile, direct community-service-agency wages such as for NDS have risen 7 percent.

Laing said this has occured while the state has entrusted 90 percent of all developmentally delayed programs to such agencies.

He said employees doing hard work for low pay are leaving the agencies, which is compromising the quality of care for persons with disabilities and hindering the organization of the care network.

With the state of Kansas facing a budget deficit of more than $500 million, Laing said it is difficult for any agency to make its plea to protect its funding.

The state also stands to lose matching federal funds for the developmentally delayed if it doesn’t come up with money itself. There may be Medicaid cuts for medical equipment, vision services, dental services and audiology services as well as waiver-protected income-level eligibility limits without new revenue.

State developmentally disabled community support grants may be reduced 25 percent, according to SRS.

“We have to ask what is the role of government in providing for those who need assistance,” Laing said. “What do we do that’s effective? We still gotta do what we gotta do.

“The hardest thing to do is to encourage these families to have hope. Do we have to come back to say, sorry, there is no hope for this year. Are we sowing seeds of hope on a fairly barren field?”

Laing noted that the Legislature has cut taxes dramatically over the years since 1995 with a total cumulative reduction into fiscal year 2003 of slightly more than $4.8 million.

He contended that a small setback in the reductions to provide sustained funding to developmental services would be money well spent.

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