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Johnson County Leaders Gather to Discuss the "Strained Safety Net"

By Mike Sherry, for the KHI News Service, June 13, 2012

OVERLAND PARK – With demands for their services apparently ever increasing, medical safety-net providers must remember to emphasize the value of what they do when dealing with policymakers, funders and members of the public who may not directly benefit from the clinics.

Those who gathered here Tuesday for the area agencies’ annual Human Service Summit agreed that making those points even in the most routine daily conversations could help raise the awareness needed to perhaps help patch what they described as growing holes in the social safety net.

About 160 people attended the event at the Ritz Charles. The theme of the summit was “The Strained Safety Net.”

Melinda Lewis, a public policy consultant and instructor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, outlined some of the strains that exist.

Even in relatively affluent Johnson County, she said, “we are not immune to some of these.”

According to her statistics for the county:

  • The Health Partnership Clinic, which serves low-income, uninsured patients, registered a 21 percent increase in patient visits between 2010 and 2011.
  • During the same period, the number of households receiving energy assistance increased by 37 percent.
  • The number of homeless K-12 students nearly tripled, to more than 900, between the 2007-08 and 2010-11 academic years.

She said needs of the county’s poor extended into areas not typically associated with the safety net, such as public transportation. Service cuts could leave the county with only five remaining bus routes, Lewis said, down from more than 20.

That could presents a significant hurdle, for example, to a low-income woman in Roeland Park, who needs public transport to obtain prenatal services offered at the other end of the county in Olathe.

It’s great that the county has preserved prenatal care, Lewis said, but if you are that stranded woman, “Do you really have access to that service?”

As the recession shrunk the public coffers, the county has had little choice but to cut the budget, said Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, who appeared on a panel following Lewis’ presentation.

For instance, he said, in 2009 the county collected about $11 million in mortgage registration fees collected on home-financing transactions, down about 45 percent from the year before. Cuts in state and federal spending also weigh on local government.
Eilert said the safety net community must communicate to lawmakers that the local foot soldiers cannot absorb any more budget cuts at the state or federal level.

“Local governments are not in the position where they can backfill the loss of state and federal dollars,” he said.

Eilert said the county provides support in four areas of community health: public health, mental health, human services, and assistance for the developmentally disabled.

County taxpayers pay about 30 percent of the tab for those services, with state and federal money making up the difference. Eilert said it would take a property tax increase of more than 40 percent to fund the programs completely with local dollars.

“Is that likely to happen? I don’t think so,” he said “So, that is where we are at today.”

Team leaders at the summit reported the top messages that participants agreed policymakers and community members should hear.

A recurring one was that the safety net is there for everyone in need and a person might never know when to expect that moment of need.

Or, as Janee Hanzlick summarized it from her group, “It could be any of us at any time.”

Hanzlick is the associate director of SAFEHOME, a domestic violence agency. She said her pitch was simple: “We save lives.”

But there’s no substitute for bringing in a legislator, for instance, and showing them what’s actually taking place, she said.

“It makes a huge difference,” Hanzlick said, “when they come and say, ‘Oh my gosh. I had no idea of the extent of your services.’”


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