Group protests SRS assistance freeze

Published: January 15, 2009  |  Source: hdnews.net
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A small group of protesters, several of whom were seated in wheelchairs, gathered in 30-degree weather outside the Hays office of Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services on Wednesday morning.

The idea was to keep things peaceful. There was no chanting, and no entrances were blocked. Rather, the group hoped to educate the public about a recent waiver freeze implemented by SRS, said organizer Lou Ann Kibbee, Hays.

“Our goal here, obviously, is to stop the freeze, and we don’t have a problem with the local SRS workers. Our target is higher up,” Kibbee said.

The group’s efforts are part of a statewide initiative, Stop the Freeze, featuring a Web site at www.stopthefreeze.com. Similar endeavors are planned throughout Kansas.

On Dec. 1, the department announced a hard freeze would be implemented on the home and community based services waiver, which allows individuals with physical disabilities to receive Medicaid-covered care at home.

The waiver assists low-income individuals, age 16 to 64, with physical disabilities.

The freeze, which blocks new applicants from receiving waiver assistance, follows an unexplained spike in the number of applicants for this particular program. Michelle Ponce, director of communications for Kansas SRS, said the number of individuals benefiting from this waiver has increased from 6,500 to 7,300 since July 1.

As a result, program spending escalated to about $10 million above budget, and the department had to take corrective action to ensure those receiving the services would not lose them, Ponce said.

“It was not a decision that was taken lightly, and it’s not an action we’re pleased to be taking,” she said. “But it is one we feel is necessary at this time.”

Individuals in need of these services are encouraged to fill out an application, regardless of the freeze, and their names will be placed on a waiting list, she said.

Ponce also encouraged individuals with physical disabilities to explore other community resources in the meantime. The situation will be re-evaluated July 1 with the start of fiscal year 2010.

Individuals with physical disabilities who meet certain criteria also could be eligible for waiver assistance. Exceptions will be considered for victims of abuse, cases posing a risk of family unit dissolution and individuals with terminal illnesses, Ponce said.

Several of the demonstrators present Wednesday have benefited personally from the Medicaid waiver and expressed concern that others with disabilities might not be as fortunate as they have been.

The group fears many individuals who could maintain a private residence and status as community supporters could end up in nursing homes, which would cost significantly more, Kibbee said.

“It’s a human issue. It’s a human rights issue,” Kibbee said. “They should have the right to be able to live where they want to live. But it’s also an economic issue in the state of Kansas, and I think that’s the side they haven’t really thought about.”

Ellis resident Tom Robinson has received assistance from the waiver since it was established. He sustained a spinal cord injury 50 years ago in an automobile accident and says the waiver has made it possible for him to maintain quality of life.

A community volunteer, Robinson has served on boards for Kansas Legal Services and SKIL. He also is president of Ellis’ AARP chapter.

“If I wasn’t able to have attendant care, I wouldn’t be able to be involved in my community,” he said.

Robinson also expressed concern that individuals who make a living providing home-based assistant care could find themselves unemployed.

Kibbee also knows the importance of such assistance. She also has suffered spinal cord damage and relied on the waiver until finding steady employment.

“Without those services back then, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college, I wouldn’t be working, I wouldn’t be a taxpayer, I wouldn’t own a home, I wouldn’t be married,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to live my life the way other people without disabilities do.”

By KALEY LYON