Friday, March 20, 2009

Hearing Held To Investigate Whether Kansas Nonprofit Used Political Ties to Gov. Sebelius to Secure Funding

The Topeka Star reports that Kansas lawmakers want to know whether a Johnson County nonprofit used its political connections to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to get a special funding increase last fall.  Lenexa-based Community Living Opportunities was awarded nearly $713,000 in extra Medicaid funds. The group serves developmentally disabled Kansans, primarily in Johnson and Douglas counties.  At the time, the agency’s board of directors included Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Larry Gates, a Sebelius confidant, and his former law partner, Dan Biles, whom Sebelius appointed to the state Supreme Court this year. Lew Perkins, the University of Kansas athletic director, also serves on the board. Biles has since stepped down from the board.  The allegations come as Sebelius, a Democrat, awaits U.S. Senate confirmation to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Medicaid.

A hearing was held on Wednesday, but neither Sebelius nor Gates attended.  Sebelius has said she had nothing to do with the funding decision, which was made by Don Jordan, her secretary of social and rehabilitation services. Gates also has denied speaking to Sebelius about the funding request.

At the hearing, other service providers maintained that the state told them no extra funding was available. They told lawmakers that Community Living Opportunities was allowed to skip the usual process of requesting extra funds, which involves going before a local agency that oversees such requests.  The extra funds Community Living received went to pay staffers who work directly with 43 of its 350 clients with disabilities deemed severe enough to warrant higher payments.  Jordan told lawmakers Wednesday that giving Community Living the extra funds was “an extremely challenging decision.” He said he concluded that the agency’s clients deserved the funding. “I believe I did the right thing,” he told lawmakers. 

Typically, groups such as Community Living go before a local entity — a Community Developmental Disability Organization — that has been designated by the state to oversee extra funding requests. In most cases, however, the “gatekeeper” is itself a competing service provider.  However, Community Living’s requests for extra funds had been denied in the past by the local gatekeeper, the county-run Johnson County Developmental Supports.  “It’s the reason we felt we had to go to SRS (Social and Rehabilitation Services),” said Community Living’s senior administrator, Stephanie Wilson. She said Community Living serves those with severe disabilities who require more costly services.  Yet at the same time Community Living petitioned the state, it was developing a 40-acre ranch in Douglas County for use as a therapeutic equestrian and activity center for its clients. The property cost $400,000, Community Living executives told lawmakers Wednesday. A home, stable, and swimming pool have been built.

No additional hearings are scheduled, but an investigation by legislative auditors has been requested.  Jordan also has asked for an external review to validate his decision, which should be completed in May.


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