State workers throughout Kansas know to be careful when talking to the media, but employees at a state-owned hospital this month were warned about communicating with another group: Lawmakers.
Employees at the troubled and understaffed Larned State Hospital received a memo instructing them that they needed permission from the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, the agency that oversees the psychiatric facility, before speaking to Kansas legislators. The restriction likely violates a state law that protects whistleblowers, according to the union that represents state workers.
“It’s the chutzpah that amazes me. The willingness to put that in writing is just amazing,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “I can’t imagine that it is either legal, nor is it good policy. It is just no way for an employer to treat an employee to try and gag them.”
Kelly said lawmakers “rely on people in the trenches to tell us what’s really going on because we’re suspect of the information provided to us by leadership.” She called any effort to restrict their conversations with lawmakers “a cover-up.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, questioned the wisdom of the policy as worded.
“It doesn’t make sense because we’re all public servants and if they have an issue I’d rather they reach out to me,” Denning said. “They can’t keep anybody from talking to the Legislature. They’re going to be a constituent of some legislator for sure.”
The Nov. 15 memo, which was obtained by The Star, instructs employees at Larned State Hospital that it is a “violation of Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) policy for staff to speak to the media and/or any legislators or to provide information to the media and/or any legislators without prior authorization from the KDADS Director of Communications.”
Two current Larned employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the policy, said the prohibition on speaking to the media has been in effect for several years, but the policy against speaking to lawmakers is new. It reflects an effort by officials in Topeka to hide the problems facing the facility, they said.
“Employees need their jobs, so they basically intimidate them to not talk to anybody who could do anything,” one of the employees said.
“They don’t want the truth out there,” the employee said. “They turn their reports in and tell the people at the top that things are going good, the staffing problem’s not bad… If they get the correct information out there, then they know they’ve got a problem.”
Both employees at the western Kansas hospital questioned the legality of the policy.
“You can’t stop people from talking to their elected representatives. That’s basic civics 101,” the second employee said.
The head of the state agency that oversees Larned State Hospital denied that his office had any role in crafting the policy, despite the fact that the memo says hospital employees must obtain permission from his spokeswoman before talking to lawmakers.
“I can promise you that we won’t discipline people if they talk to lawmakers,” KDADS Secretary Tim Keck said in a Tuesday night phone call. Keck asserted — despite the wording of the memo — that the policy is not meant to restrict employees from speaking with lawmakers.
“It’s about who has the right to talk on behalf of the agency,” he said, contending that the memo only restricts employees from presenting their opinions as agency positions.
Keck said the agency as a whole does not issue a warning about talking to lawmakers as part of its policies and that he is unaware whether the state’s other psychiatric facility in Osawatomie has issued a similar memo to staff members. He also said that he didn’t know whether other state agencies had crafted similar policies.
“I think we’ll probably have to take the policy back to (Larned) leadership for clarification,” Keck said.
Keck also said that the agency would not discipline employees for speaking to media as long as they make clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the agency. “People have a right to say what they want,” he said.
However, Keck said the Larned employees concerned about the policy should have reached out to him to resolve the issue rather than contacting The Star. The employees cited The Star’s previous reporting on transparency in the state as the reason they approached the newspaper.
State hospitals have faced numerous challenges in recent years.
Larned has suffered from low staffing, forcing employees to work long hours. The hospital, which serves patients with severe mental illness, accounted for nearly a quarter of the state’s overtime pay during the 2016 fiscal year, outpacing every other state agency.
“The staffing shortage out there is really horrible. They’re just working astronomical hours,” the first employee said.
The gaps in staffing have raised concerns about safety. The state’s other psychiatric hospital in Osawatomie lost its federal Medicare certification in 2015 after federal investigators raised a plethora of safety concerns, including low staffing, after a nurse was allegedly raped by a patient.
Larned’s superintendent, Bill Rein, said in a statement that unless given a special designation hospital employees do not have the authority to speak on behalf of the hospital.
He said in the days since the memo was distributed he has “made it clear that the policy is applicable to the official business of the hospital and KDADS. We have never, nor do we ever intend to discipline employees who express their personal beliefs, experiences, and concerns with the media or legislators.”
KDADS said that Keck was unaware of the contents of the memo until The Star brought it to his attention Tuesday. Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, questioned that claim.
“Everything is blessed and checked by Topeka,” Choromanski said.
“So that doesn’t pass my BS meter whatsoever,” he said. “I don’t believe those state hospitals are going rogue. And I kind of find it ludicrous that Tim Keck doesn’t know what these state hospitals have done. This administration is very centralized. I find it very hard to believe that they had no role in crafting policies.”
Kelly, who sits on the committee that oversees Keck’s agency, also questioned the notion that central office had no role in crafting the policy.
“All of the decision-making has been coming out of central office, not the individual institutions,” she said. “So I would be surprised if the individual institutions were designing their own policy and procedure manuals without first clearing it with central office.”
When first contacted about the memo last week, Choromanski said that it likely violated the Kansas Whistleblower Act.
The law states that no supervisor or state agency “shall prohibit any employee of the state agency from discussing the operations of the state agency or other matters of public concern, including matters relating to the public health, safety and welfare either specifically or generally, with any member of the legislature or any auditing agency.”
Choromanski said that he has run into similar problems with other agencies, explaining that a guard at Hutchinson Correctional Facility was reprimanded for informing the union about an attack on two guards last month.
Federal labor laws protect the guard’s correspondence with the union, Choromanski said.
Samir Arif, the spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said he was aware of that particular situation, but said “exceptions are made to those (labor) rules if it involves security information and my understanding is what that employee shared was protected security information.”
Choromanski said state agencies have become more restrictive on employees’ rights to speak since Sam Brownback became governor in 2011.
“It is a chilling effect when they send those memos out saying, ‘Be careful what you say. We’re watching you.’ It’s like Big Brother,” he said.
Rachel Whitten, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the policy “is designed to ensure the agency has one voice” and reiterated that it “only applies to the official business of the state hospital and does not prohibit employees from speaking to their elected officials as a constituent.”
The second Larned employee disagreed with the administration’s interpretation.
“Do they know how to read basic English?” the employee said. “Word choice matters. If they wrote a law that way, it would mean that I couldn’t talk to lawmakers.”
Legislators also found the wording of the Larned memo concerning.
Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican, said one of the main ways lawmakers discover problems in state hospitals is employees bringing issues to light.
“That could be huge if they can’t talk to a legislator,” Schmidt said. “That’s how we assist our constituents: when we hear about issues, we investigate them… I mean, if we can’t speak to them — if that’s going to go through a filter all the time — then I imagine there’s a lot we won’t hear about.”
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House Health committee, was less concerned about the policy impeding lawmakers’ ability to investigate. He said he believes in the chain of command and when he has questions about the state hospitals he prefers to go through the central office in Topeka.
“If I call somebody at Larned and say, ‘Hey, give me the poop,’ they may give me the poop that’s important to them and it might not be accurate,” he said.
However, Hawkins said that restricting employees from being able to contact their own lawmakers would be problematic.
“I would think that more or less would be a constitutional right,” he said.
Aside from the warning about lawmakers, the Larned memo is largely identical to restrictions on speaking to the media that KDADS has had in place since at least 2013 based on documents provided to The Star.
Both documents state that all information coming out of the agency should come from the central communications office in Topeka. The policies also include a warning that staff “should be very circumspect in remarks you make at public meetings” because there “may be a reporter present in public meetings or participants may later make known to the media what you said.”
The second Larned employee said that many hospital staff will not attend lawmakers’ town halls out of fear that they could get in trouble with KDADS. Both employees said KDADS monitors employees’ social media posts for negative comments about the hospital.
A former Larned employee, Mike Mohr, shared screen shots of a message he received from KDADS spokeswoman Angela De Rocha demanding that he take down a Facebook post in June even after he had stopped working in the hospital.
Mohr had questioned a decision to cut contract employees at Larned.
“There is already a shortage in these positions, now the patients will truly be the victims of the state system! Please raise hell about this travesty!” he wrote, prompting a request from De Rocha that he delete the post.
De Rocha, who is out of the office this week, could not be reached for comment. Keck declined to comment on the exchange.
Mohr, who worked at the hospital for three years, found the interaction reflective of the wider environment in KDADS. “There’s absolutely a culture of fear,” he said, contending that he was once reprimanded for asking questions at a staff meeting.
“They really didn’t want you to be saying anything,” he said. “We were not supposed to ask any questions about the directives given to us. We were just supposed to do it.”