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Aging agencies under scrutiny after health care compact article

Kansas Legislative Research Department seeks information at lawmaker's request

By Andy Marso | October 02, 2014

A series of 11 agencies that serve older Kansans are under scrutiny after one in Johnson County published an article in its monthly newsletter critical of a health care compact the Legislature passed last session.

Janis DeBoer, executive director of the Kansas Area Agencies on Aging Association, said she received a call from a member of the Kansas Legislative Research Department who was researching the aging agencies at a legislator's request.

Janis DeBoer, executive director of the Kansas Area Agencies on Aging Association.

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DeBoer said the researcher asked her how many people the agencies serve.

“They asked if we generated an annual report with that information," DeBoer said. "I said, 'No, we do not, and probably the best source of that information is the KDADS (Kansas Department on Aging and Disability Services) repositories.'”

DeBoer said that was the only question in her brief conversation with the legislative research employee.

The legislative research department is a state agency of nonpartisan experts who provide information to legislators. It is the department's policy not to reveal the legislator who requested specific information or details of the request.

DeBoer said that in the three years she has been executive director, researchers may have called "a couple" times, but she could not recall what the previous information requests were about.

"Not very frequently do we get phone calls from the legislative research department," DeBoer said. "Every once in a while."

The latest request for information came within a week of a tense meeting between Johnson County legislators and members of the Johnson County Commission on Aging, a group of senior volunteers who advise that county's Area Agency on Aging.


The Best Times - October 2014

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The legislators took umbrage with the commission's intent to publish in a county newsletter, The Best Times, an article critical of a health care compact they approved last session. The compact, which includes nine states, proposes that member states be allowed to opt out of federal health care laws and receive money for programs like Medicaid and Medicare in block grants.

Supporters of the legislation in Kansas saw it as a repudiation of President Barack Obama, but a majority of the Johnson County Commission on Aging members saw it as a threat to Medicare.

During the Sept. 15 meeting, several legislators expressed concern about proximity of the article's publication to the November election, with Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Republican from Leawood, calling it "partisan" and an "October surprise."

At one point House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell, turned to Dan Goodman, the director of the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging, and told Goodman, "This is going to set you guys back."

Sen. Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, told the commission members they "really need to think about this" because publishing the article would anger most of the Johnson County legislative delegation.

The next day Johnson County Commissioner Jason Osterhaus emailed a county official saying he needed help fulfilling an information request from Denning's wife, Marearl, who had asked about the budget for the agency on aging, the budget for the The Best Times, the breakdown of local versus federal funding for the Best Times and who at the county oversees the publication.

Denning, in an email Wednesday, said he was not involved in his wife's request, adding that if he wanted that information he would have found it online or asked the county manager directly.

"Marearl is an activist and does her own thing," Denning said.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican from Overland Park who is the legislative appointee to the Johnson County Commission on Aging, said she encourages citizens and legislators alike to seek information about public agencies. But the pending requests surrounding the aging agencies is worth monitoring, she said, because of the "disrespectful and menacing" tone some of her colleagues took in the Sept. 15 meeting.

Johnson County commissioners ultimately granted a page in The Best Times to legislators so they could rebut the commission's stance on the health care compact.

Clayton, who voted against the compact, said the commission on aging was within its rights to publish the initial article and the legislators who disagreed with them on the issue overreacted.

“I see no reason for the reaction it generated from my colleagues in the Legislature," Clayton said. "I don’t know why they’re so upset, but they clearly are.”

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