By Jan Biles, Topeka Capital-Journal, July 16, 2011
Lawrence resident Kathleen McGee speaks out July 11 at the
town hall meeting regarding the closing of the Kansas
Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services office in
Lawrence. About 700 people attended the meeting at
Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence.
(Photo by Jan Biles/Topeka Capitol-Journal)
LAWRENCE — Lawrence resident Kathleen McGee doesn't get out of the house much. Multiple medical conditions keep her near an oxygen tank and resting in her bed much of the time.
But recent comments from Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. upset her so much that she asked her elderly mother to drive her this past Monday evening to Plymouth Congregational Church, where a town hall meeting about the closure of the Lawrence SRS office was slated.
Steadied by a leg brace and two canes, McGee stood in the back of the church and told the more than 700 people in the nave and balcony and a panel of legislators and city and county officials sitting near the sanctuary that Siedlecki's comments were wrong.
A few days earlier, Siedlecki, former chief of staff with the Florida Department of Health, said closing the Lawrence office was akin to asking a family to sacrifice a child.
"This is America, and this is Kansas. We don't sacrifice our children. We help them," the 57-year-old McGee said.
The clapping and cheering of the crowd after her comments was still replaying in McGee's mind Tuesday afternoon as she lay in her bed at home. Going to Monday night's meeting had zapped her energy.
"I don't stand up and fight for too many causes anymore," she said. "I didn't go last night for me. I went to speak up for all the children in the community who will be so sadly affected."
McGee, the proud mother of two children, has a long list of medical conditions: six strokes, a congenital heart defect, acute myocardial infarction, glaucoma, fibrosis of the lung, diabetes and a rare blood clotting disease resulting in a short life expectancy. She takes 15 medications and occasionally needs in-home oxygen therapy.
Lawrence resident Kathleen McGee, 57, who walks
with canes and has several medical conditions,
says the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation
Services needs to rethink closing its Lawrence office.
McGee said she would not be able to travel out of town to
seek services at another office.
(Photo by Jan Biles/Topeka Capitol-Journal)
Two years ago, when she could no longer work as a medical lab technician and certified nursing assistant, she turned to SRS for help. As she waited to get approved for disability benefits, she was without insurance or income for four months.
“SRS helped me get Medicaid for a while and get to doctors, like getting to physical therapy for stroke rehab to save my right leg,” she said.
EFFECTS OF CLOSURES
The Lawrence office is one of nine SRS service centers across Kansas targeted by Gov. Sam Brownback and Siedlecki for closure as part of the administration's plan to save money and trim the state's budget.
In addition to the Lawrence service center, SRS offices in Coffeyville, Fort Scott, Garnett, Lyndon, Marysville, McPherson, Pratt and Wellington will close.
"We haven't established closure dates as of now for any of the offices," said Rachel Whitten, public information officer for SRS. "Our reorganization team is working to shift case loads and workers to new locations. We’re not in any rush, because we want to make sure it's done correctly. It will happen over the next several months."
Legislators recently ordered SRS officials to slash $42 million from the department's budget, including $1 million in administrative costs for fiscal year 2012. Closing the nine offices is expected to result in about $1 million in savings a year.
REASONS FOR CLOSURES
In addition to savings, Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation officials had other reasons for choosing the nine SRS service centers over offices in other Kansas towns for closure. According to SRS documents, those reasons include:
Lawrence: The city has access to other offices in Topeka, Ottawa, Kansas City, Overland Park and Leavenworth. It is the fifth-most expensive to operate; five or six other offices would need to be consolidated to achieve the same savings. Kansas City and Topeka have more capacity available; each has more than 100 open spaces. Topeka is a state-owned building with empty space. Wyandotte County has twice the number of children living in poverty than Douglas County, 31 percent and 19 percent respectively.
Marysville: The regional office director indicated "walk in traffic is light" and "customers already have a lot of contract by phone." Staff of 12.
Lyndon: Small caseload and staff of 10, who can be absorbed into the Topeka office. Close in proximity to other offices in Topeka and Ottawa.
Whitten said estimated savings from closing the Lawrence office is $413,385. About $32,327 will be realized by shuttering the Lyndon service center and $48,527 for closing the Marysville office.
The Lawrence office employs 87 workers, while Lyndon has 10 employees and Marysville has 12. Those employees were told they wouldn’t be laid off but reassigned to jobs in other SRS locations.
"They are to pull up their roots to relocate to some other place, like Hays or Oakley," said Lawrence resident Ralph Reed, who is angered by the closing of the Lawrence office. "I don't think the state will pay for their relocation expenses or buy out their houses."
In June, the Lawrence office provided services to 10,211 people in Douglas County, according to SRS officials. The Lyndon office served 422 residents in Osage County, and the Marysville office had a caseload of 1,429 in Marshall and Nemaha counties.
SRS officials have said the office closures won't disrupt services to SRS beneficiaries because they can contact their caseworkers by phone or apply for services online. Those without computers can access the SRS website on computers at their public libraries.
"Too many of the SRS clientele lack computer literacy and easy access to computers. Even those who do have computer skills cannot be expected to negotiate a 16-page application form without assistance," the Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence said in a statement released at the town hall meeting.
"Some of the most-needed SRS services are not available online, most notably, it is not possible to apply online for Medicaid," Marilyn Brune, of Eudora, said.
Brownback also said Douglas County residents can travel to nearby SRS offices in Topeka, Ottawa, Kansas City, Overland Park and Leavenworth via four-lane highways.
The nearest SRS offices to Lyndon are in Topeka and Ottawa, while beneficiaries in Marysville likely would travel to Hiawatha or Manhattan.
McGee said listing four-lane highways as an advantage for Douglas County residents is meaningless if you don't have a car or extra money to buy more gas or are unable to drive because of a disability.
Patricia Roach Smith, chief operations officer at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said closing the Lawrence SRS office will mean its case managers and homeless outreach team will spend more time providing transportation so clients can access needed services. She estimates the time case managers spend on transportation for clients will increase by 30 percent, while the homeless outreach team's time will increase by 50 percent.
"(That means) that time won’t be available for addressing their mental health needs," she said.
Malissa Martin, president of Communities In Schools of Kansas, part of the nation's largest dropout-prevention network, said nonprofits can't be expected to fill the void created by the closing of SRS offices.
"We have the heart. We don't have the time," she said. "SRS services are the proper role of government."
DRIVEN BY POLITICS?
Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said he would do everything possible to keep the SRS office in Lawrence open so it can continue to provide services to 10,000-plus Kansans.
"Facts don't lie, and I believe that facts are on our side to keep this office open," Davis said, adding that anyone who pays taxes should have a say in how that money is spent.
While Brownback has said he remains open to options regarding the SRS office closures, Siedlecki has indicated the decision stands firm.
Wes Crenshaw, a Lawrence psychologist, said the closing of the SRS office isn't about serving the needs of Kansans but about pushing an ideological position onto citizens.
"The goal is to use this as a template to do more and more of this across the country," Crenshaw said.
At Monday night's meeting, Crenshaw told the crowd they needed to "show their resistance" by rallying at the Statehouse in the same way Wisconsin protesters flooded the capitol building in Madison during a fight over collective bargaining powers.
"People need to be in Topeka and voice their opinions, not because it will open the office, but so it will be clear that the silent majority will not be silent anymore," he said.
Jan Biles can be reached at (785) 295-1292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more at, Residents sound off on SRS office closure.