A state agency charged with helping people with disabilities find and maintain employment has returned $15 million to the federal government.
The decision, according to Michael Donnelly, director of rehabilitation services at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, was made because fewer people were asking the agency for help.
“The number of people coming in and applying for VR (vocational rehabilitation) assistance has dropped dramatically since 2011, when we were at the height of the recession,” Donnelly said.
In fiscal year 2011, he said, almost 8,300 adults with disabilities asked for the department’s help in finding employment. In FY 2015, which ended June 30, only 4,600 had applied.
Donnelly attributed much of the drop to improvements in the state’s economy.
“The job market has opened up,” he said. “There are employers in areas of our state that are begging for employees and, for the first time, are looking to people with disabilities as a good resource.”
Subsequently, Kansans with disabilities may not need as much help landing jobs as they had in the past, Donnelly said. Most of the drop-off in vocational rehabilitation assistance, he said, has been in the state’s rural areas.
“We continue to get large numbers of applications in the more urban areas,” he said.
If Kansas hadn’t returned the $15 million to the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Education, it would have had to put up roughly $3.5 million in matching funds, he said.
It didn’t make sense, Donnelly said, for DCF to spend state dollars on federal funds it wasn’t in a position to spend amid a tight Kansas budget situation.
The $15 million constituted nearly 60 percent of the state’s $25.5 million federal allotment of vocational rehabilitation funding for the year. No other state, according to RSA reports, relinquished a higher percentage of the money set aside for it.
Of the 80 entities that received RSA funding in the last federal fiscal year — a category that includes states and national organizations — 16 relinquished $139.3 million. Kansas’ $15 million was the fifth-largest amount.
The unspent funds have been made available to employment programs in other states. Kansas also returned $7.5 million in FY 2014, Donnelly said.
News of the relinquishment, which happened in August and wasn’t announced, surprised groups that advocate for people with disabilities.
“No one knew about this,” said Mike Oxford, executive director of the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, a program that provides and oversees services for hundreds of people with disabilities in Shawnee County.
“If their (vocational rehabilitation) numbers were down, there should have been a strategy, a plan for reaching out to more people, for exploring every possible avenue for using this money to benefit Kansans instead of just giving it back,” Oxford said.
The state’s decision to return the federal funding is disappointing to Sue Huber, who receives Social Security disability payments due to degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and diabetes.
Huber, who lives in Atchison, recently lost a 12-hour-a-week caregiving job because she doesn’t have a way to take her client to doctor’s appointments.
“I asked them help in buying transportation, but they said they couldn’t because they didn’t have the money,” Huber said. “Then, after I lost the job, they said they couldn’t help me get a car because I wasn’t working.”
Huber, 56, said she wasn’t surprised to hear that fewer people with disabilities were applying for help in finding employment.
“In the past four years, I’ve had 13 case managers,” she said. “I’m barely hanging on by a thread, and I really want to get a job that I can do. But every time we get something going, we have to stop because my case manager quit and we have to start over.
“I can see why people wouldn’t go to them; it’s incredibly frustrating. I feel like a giant hamster in this big wheel just going around and around.”
Rosie Cooper, executive director of the Kansas Association for Independent Living Centers, said the application process for employment assistance is known for its long waits.
“When someone goes to a VR office and fills out an application, it’ll be 90 days before something actually gets going for them,” she said. “A lot of people can’t wait that long, so they don’t apply. They see it as a waste of time.”
However, she said, there are a lot of Kansans with disabilities who want to work and need help finding a job.
Theresa Freed, DCF director of communications, said it often takes more than 30 days to determine whether an applicant is eligible for services. Collecting the required medical records and disability documentation also takes time, she said, as does setting up and completing assessments.
It’s also well-known, Cooper said, that DCF has had a hard time hiring and retaining vocational rehabilitation counselors and that some of the larger service providers have pulled out of the program because reimbursement rates do not cover their costs.
“We got out a little over a year ago,” said Ron Pasmore, president and CEO of the Kansas Elks Training Center in Wichita. “It just got to a point where we couldn’t keep doing it for what they (DCF) were paying. We were having to subsidize a lot of the operations, and we couldn’t afford to do that.”
At the time, Kansas Elks Training Center was one of the largest vocational rehabilitation providers in the state.
DCF, Donnelly said, had contracts with 125 service providers in FY 2012; it now has contracts with 110.
Some providers, he said, did not renew their contracts because they weren’t getting enough referrals, had little success in helping people find jobs or were unable to meet the contract payment requirement that clients stay on the job for 90 days.
Donnelly said some vocational rehabilitation counselors have retired, while others left after realizing that “the complexity and accountability associated with the job … isn’t a good fit for them.”
Recruiting counselors is difficult, he said, because the position requires a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.
‘Collaborative effort’ in the works
Donnelly defended the decision to relinquish the $15 million, noting the department has enough money in a reserve fund to cover the program’s projected costs for this year and will have access to its allotment — roughly $29 million — in the next federal fiscal year.
If more people had applied for services, he said, DCF likely would have held on to the funds.
“We can only spend money on people who’ve been determined eligible for VR,” he said. “If there are people who may be eligible for VR that they (advocates) are not referring to us, then that’s where they should be spending their energies: getting those people referred to us.”
The RSA allotment, Donnelly said, is not part of End Dependence Kansas, a still-in-the-making employment initiative that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer unveiled during a news conference in October 2014.
That initiative, he said, will be a “collaborative effort” among DCF and several other state departments: aging and disability services, health and environment, commerce and corrections.
“It will be more of an outreach effort for people with disabilities who aren’t even seeking employment — to encourage them to consider thinking about getting a job,” Donnelly said.
A Boston firm, Public Consulting Group, has been hired to oversee the project.
“We hope to put out an RFI (request for information) within the next 30 days,” Donnelly said. After that, he said, a request for proposals will be issued for direct services.