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Advocating for vulnerable Kansans

In this season of good will, it is fitting to recognize a Kansan who engages in state politics by serving as a champion in behalf of our state's most vulnerable residents. That person is Tom Laing, who during the past 20 years has been a constant and tenacious advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

Officially, Laing is the executive director of InterHab, a statewide association of community organizations that serve individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. He has guided the association by placing its focus on expanding individual choice for disabled Kansans in education and employment and assuring their right to live independently in the community.

Laing's focus and impact on state policy are nowhere more apparent than in the enactment of the Kansas Developmental Disabilities Reform Act of 1995. The act emphasized the individual rights of the disabled and initiated a state-local partnership in the delivery of community services through nonprofit and for-profit agencies throughout the state.

Since 1995, Laing has faced off each year with governors and state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, to advocate for adequate funding to implement the act. Today, 8,600 Kansans with developmental disabilities are being served through a statewide network of community-based organizations, rather than through expensive, unwieldy state institutions where thousands of persons were segregated in prior decades.

Laing leads by speaking truth to power. In the words of Colin McKenney, CEO of Starkey, a Wichita-area provider of services to the disabled: "When it comes to saying what needs to be said about the needs of Kansans with disabilities, I don't think Tom spends much time worrying about who might be offended by the truth."

Still, not all who seek services are being served. More than 4,600 eligible persons remain on a wait list for services and are at the top of Laing's agenda.

Laing's most recent battle on behalf of disabled residents has been to carve their services out from under KanCare, Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to have the state Medicaid program managed by three for-profit, out-of-state insurance companies (termed "managed care organizations" or MCOs).

Laing has been in the forefront of challenging Brownback's insistence that services to Kansans with developmental disabilities be wrapped under KanCare and managed by MCOs, even though no other state has attempted what Brownback proposes. In the 2012 legislative session, along with other advocates, Laing persuaded state lawmakers to reject the governor's recommendation and defer coverage for these disabled for one year, to Jan. 1.

MCO missteps in implementing KanCare have strengthened the resolve of Laing and his allies to again square off against the Brownback administration and resist covering these disabled through KanCare. Delayed payments to providers, red-tape in managing claims and unqualified MCO staff -- among other issues -- have plagued the performance of KanCare throughout the year. Further, the Brownback administration has failed to secure final approval of federal officials to include persons with developmental disabilities under KanCare.

So, in the waning days of December, hours before the next deadline, Laing once more has taken the lead in advocating for disabled Kansans. Undeterred by fears of political retribution, he along with supporters have showered federal officials with commentary that KanCare is not an appropriate vehicle for managing long-term services for the disabled. National advocates have added their support as well.

As 2013 comes to a close, Laing again might be found at work in the trenches on behalf of our state's most vulnerable citizens. He walks among a group of extraordinary Kansans who have made Kansas a better place to live for all our citizens.

H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University. His adult stepson, Ryan, has Down syndrome and benefits from the

advocacy of Tom Laing.