- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Topeka Capital-Journal, Oct. 21

Among many conservatives, there’s a reflexive assumption that reducing the size of government is always a good thing. This is why politicians like Gov. Sam Brownback often declare their fervent opposition to “big government” and boast about their attempts to reduce spending, cull the number of state employees, etc. For example, Kansas budget director Shawn Sullivan says the Brownback administration made “an intentional effort to downsize, to be more efficient.”

One of our leading gubernatorial candidates has a similar attitude. In August, Secretary of State Kris Kobach wrote a column for Breitbart urging federal and state governments to “fill no more than 2/3 of the vacancies that exist” as baby boomers retire. He says this is what he did at the secretary of state’s office, which allowed him to “shrink my agency’s workforce by 18 percent.”

He also argued that the “number of state and local government employees has tripled to over 18 million” in the U.S. since 1960 - a trend he describes as “depressing.”

Here’s a fact that should cheer Kobach up: the number of state employees in Kansas has dropped by 25 percent since 2002. From the Department for Children and Families to the Department of Transportation, almost every state agency has been forced to cope with staff reductions during the past decade and a half. And in many cases, these reductions have been substantial.

For example, DCF lost almost 1,800 employees between 2002 and 2016 - a decrease of almost 50 percent. Perhaps Brownback and Kobach think it’s just a coincidence that the agency is notorious for its poor performance, low morale, high turnover and overworked employees. In 2016, state auditors found that DCF failed to investigate potential cases of abuse and neglect in five of 40 cases they reviewed; didn’t conduct comprehensive background checks on foster families; and neglected monthly visits. Moreover, a survey of workers in the foster care system found that heavy caseloads were cited as the main contributor to these problems.

As one attorney and guardian ad litem put it, “Caseworkers have far too many cases. They cannot possibly have the time they need.” The number of caseworkers for children and vulnerable adults has fallen by 15 percent since 2010, while the number of foster children in the state has spiked by 40 percent over the same period of time.

The Kansas Department of Corrections is another agency that has dealt with major personnel problems in recent years. Not only have state correctional facilities lost 20 percent of their employees since 2002, but officers were also being paid far less than the national average. This summer, staff shortages at prisons reached dangerous levels - there were 116 vacant positions at Lansing and 93 at El Dorado in early August. There were also repeated incidents of inmate unrest - particularly at El Dorado, where prison staff recorded 207 disciplinary incidents per month in 2016 and 362 in the first half of 2017.

The staff shortage forced corrections officers to work 12-hour and sometimes even 16-hour shifts.

Annual employee turnover at El Dorado averages around 46 percent. Brownback authorized a pay increase for corrections officers and other KDOC employees two months ago - an acknowledgement that adequate staffing levels are critical for our prisons to operate properly.

Next time a politician mindlessly celebrates the diminution of government, just remember that state workers are the ones responsible for maintaining our roads, guarding our communities, securing our prisons and protecting our most vulnerable children.

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The Manhattan Mercury, Oct. 22

We need to compensate wrongfully imprisoned

Earlier this month, a 41-year-old man became a free man for the first time. He had been imprisoned in Kansas since he was 18 for a double murder that he always said he didn’t commit.

That man, Lamonte McIntyre, lost 23 years - his entire adult life - in prison. And yet the state of Kansas is not required to compensate him in any way.

He’s not the only one. Two others - Richard Anthony Jones in Johnson County and Floyd Bledsoe in Jefferson County - have been freed in the past two years after being imprisoned for many years for crimes that they didn’t commit. They likewise are due nothing from our state.

That’s just not right. We as a state ought to compensate wrongfully imprisoned people in some way.

It’s not that money will right the wrong. It’s not that money will solve the problems those people will face adjusting to life outside the prison walls. But it won’t hurt, and it will provide some substance beyond a judge or a prosecutor saying, “oops.”

Kansas is one of 18 states without laws requiring such compensation, according to published reports. Lawmakers in Topeka have considered the issue before but have not agreed on a number or a policy.

This is becoming an increasingly common situation around the country, as the technology required to review DNA evidence has improved.

What’s the right number? We don’t know. Other states reportedly pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000 per year. There’s plenty of information out there to gather, and there are plenty of models to follow.

It’s time to figure it out. Lawmakers from both parties appear to agree on that. Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., said it’s an effort toward “correcting manifest injustices.” And Republican Rick Wilborn of McPherson said a committee wants “to venture into trying to get some fix on that issue.”

That’s good. Legislators ought to consider it a priority when they reconvene early next year. It’s not a pleasant subject, and it’s never going to be particularly popular when there are always demands on the state’s budget, but it’s simply the right thing to do.

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Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 23

Telemedicine critical to state

The Kansas Legislature would be wise to look closely at improving insurance reimbursements for telemedicine during the 2018 session.

Some 34 states have laws mandating that insurance plans cover remote delivery of health care services similar to in-person services. It would seem Kansas, which already struggles with rural health care delivery, would benefit from legislation that encourages the expansion of telemedicine services.

Bills mandating equal insurance reimbursement for telemedicine were drafted during the 2017 legislative session, but none made it out of committee. On Friday, a legislative committee that is expected to make a recommendation to the full Legislature on the issue heard debate on telemedicine reimbursement.

A leading advocate for reimbursement legislation is the University of Kansas Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth, based at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. For more than 25 years, the center has provided consultations and educational services via the Kansas Telehealth Network, which connects to more than 100 facilities throughout Kansas.

Eve-Lynn Nelson, executive director of the Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth, told the committee that telemedicine can reduce costs. “We believe telehealth, when utilized wisely, can reduce provider practice costs, improve their productivity and facilitate triaging for special care,” she said.

But Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City lobbyist Coni Fries argued telemedicine delivery is not as costly as in-person patient care and should not be reimbursed at the same level. Doing so, she said, would drive up insurance payments, thus negating the very efficiencies telemedicine is trying to achieve. She also said in-person diagnosis and treatment fosters an ongoing physician-patient relationship that often doesn’t exist in telemedicine.

In 2015, the University of Kansas School of Medicine issued a report showing that Kansas ranked 39th of 50 states in terms of the number of doctors per capita, and that the state wasn’t producing enough doctors to maintain that level, much less get Kansas to the national average.

In an environment of increasing physician shortages, especially in rural areas, telemedicine is likely to become increasingly critical to the state. Part of making such a system work is making sure that insurance reimbursement for telemedicine services is treated fairly in relation to in-person services. It’s an issue that legislators would be wise to tackle in 2018.

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