KHI News Service

SRS exploring faith-based initiatives/vouchers

By Dave Ranney | February 28, 2011

Today, many church-run programs for the poor receive government funding.

And the law is fine with that so long as they make sure tax dollars are spent on the social services services, not on prayer, preaching or proselytizing.

Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki says the current system limits choices.

Someone on public assistance, he said, ought to be able to choose from a variety of programs, not just those that agree to be secular.

“My goal is to increase choice,” said Siedlecki, who Gov. Sam Brownback picked to lead the agency last month.

More choice, Siedlecki said, would increase competition among providers, increase efficiency and help control costs.

SRS, he said, is “looking at” starting a voucher program that would give people on public assistance more say in where they receive services and let them choose a “faith-based” program, if they want.

“If we were to give a voucher to an individual for, say, drug rehab and that individual chooses a faith-based provider on their own, then the organization can bring the religious message to them,” Siedlecki said.”

Without the restriction on proselytizing, Siedlecki said, more faith-based groups could reach out to those in need.

Siedlecki brings conservative agenda to SRS

Prior to joining SRS, Siedlecki, an attorney, was senior counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice Task Force for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the final 13 months of President George W. Bush’s administration.

“We got faith-based community groups a seat at the table,” Siedlecki said. “Federal and state governments don’t have the resources to do everything. Plus, faith-based and community organizations have credibility on the street and in their communities — a government person from Washington or Topeka doesn’t have that credibility. They need to partner with the local pastor or the head of the Boys and Girls Club.”

The new SRS faith-based initiative, Siedlecki said, is not aimed at any particular church or organization.

“Again, my goal is to make SRS more effective and more efficient and to give our citizens greater choice,” he said.

Whether the department adopts a voucher-based system remains to be seen, but it’s one of many ideas that Siedlecki said he expects to roll out during a series of town hall-style meetings this summer.

Also being considered:

• A “One Church, One Child,” campaign aimed at encouraging churches to support members interested in either becoming foster parents or in adopting children in foster care.

• A “fatherhood initiative” to encourage non-custodial fathers to have what Siedlecki called “an active, positive, caring presence in their children’s lives.”

• Creating ombudsman positions in SRS’ central office and in each of its six regional offices to investigate reports of child protection workers abusing their authority.

• Inviting managed care companies to bid on providing home- and community-based services for people with physical disabilities.

• Cracking down on fraud. Siedlecki said he’d been told that during prior administrations, someone on public assistance could claim they had lost their Vision Card — the department-issued swipe card for receiving federal Food Stamp benefits — and be given a new one 10 times before SRS would look into whether the cards were being sold on the black market.

“We want to make sure that the funds we disperse are used for the purpose the law says they’re to be used for,” Siedlecki said.

Now, he said, SRS will investigate lost Vision Cards after the third or fourth report.

“This will be a top priority of our general counsel’s office, our regional offices, and for me personally,” Siedlecki said. “We want to make sure the money is going to the right people for the right services.”

Siedlecki serves on a cabinet-level work group led by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer that he said is looking for ways to cut Medicaid spending by $200 million.

“We’re looking at what other states are doing. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We’re working as fast as we can, but it’s a long process.”

He declined to be more specific about how those cuts might be accomplished. Brownback has asked the group to have a cost-cutting plan in place by July 1, 2012.

“That’s the start of fiscal year 2013,” Siedlecki said. “It’s fast approaching.”

Whether the department’s faith-based initiatives curb costs remains to be seen. Their impact on social services also remains uncertain.

“I don’t think any of us know at this point,” said Cathy Harding, executive director at the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, which represents the state’s 39 safety-net clinics.

One-third of the clinics, she said, are faith-based. And most of the rest receive financial support from local churches.

“There may be some groups out there that feel like they can’t go along with the restrictions that come with government funding. I don’t know,” Harding said. “But I have to say that from the conversations I’ve had with people in the field, everybody’s doing everything they can with the resources they have. I don’t know anybody who’s holding back.”

Kim Moore, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, said he would welcome more faith-based groups entering the social-service arena.

“My concerns would have to do with scale and capacity,” he said. “There are some wonderful church-based programs out there now that are doing some really wonderful things, but they’re small and they rely on volunteers.

“If we were to go to some kind of voucher system, maybe they could receive government funding,” Moore said. “But unless they get to be big enough to achieve a certain economy of scale, their administrative costs will be high.”

Moore said he suspected that most church-based programs would prefer to remain small and free to chart their own course.

Wendy Doyle, executive vice president at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, said the organization has little interest in mixing its services with religion.

“We do not proselytize and we have no plans to,” she said. “We serve people of all faiths and no faith. We don’t ask questions. We are here to serve.”

Doyle said she “wanted to learn more” about how vouchers might work.

“We can hardly keep pace with all the requests for services we receive now,” she said. “Maybe vouchers would help. I don’t know. There might be a chicken-egg effect, too — we couldn’t do more unless we got paid more, we wouldn’t be paid more unless we did more.

“Right now, I don’t see how we could do more,” Doyle said. “If I did, we’d be doing it.”