Some spokespersons are dogged — Brownback’s Angela de Rocha is rabid

Scores of Kansas healthcare providers gathered in Salina last week to seek relief from problems they’re encountering with KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Meeting with federal officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, representatives of hospitals, nursing homes, mental health clinics and elsewhere complained about long waits to get people certified for Medicaid. Some said a recent 4 percent cut in reimbursements for care — a cost-cutting move to deal with Kansas’ ongoing budget crisis — was making it hard to hire quality employees and serve patients.

The word crisis rang out repeatedly.

Jonathan Shorman, a reporter for The Topeka Capital-Journal, attended the meeting and sought a response from Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration. What he got was the e-mailed equivalent of a raised middle finger, courtesy of communications director Angela de Rocha.

“Unfortunately, at meetings such as the one you attended, the majority of those who turn out are disgruntled for one reason or another,” de Rocha responded. She went on to insist that most Kansans are quite happy with KanCare: “I find it puzzling that the same alarmists who describe the system as being ‘in crisis’ are urging that it be enlarged.”

That was a reference to Medicaid expansion, which would bring millions of healthcare dollars into Kansas.

The mixture of feigned surprise and genuine hostility was classic de Rocha.

As communications director for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and also the spokeswoman for the KanCare program, she has the admittedly unenviable job of denying, or at least painting over, some of the worst failures of the Brownback administration. She is called upon to explain cuts in mental-health services, a backlog in processing Medicaid applications, mounting concerns about conditions at the state’s hospitals in Osawatomie and Larned, and ongoing criticisms about the way the state treats developmentally disabled Kansans.

Her approach to these challenges: combativeness, defiance and blame. Those people upset about cutbacks in services? They’re just trying to milk the system, de Rocha says.

In a 2013 interview with The Pitch, responding to concerns about services for developmentally disabled Kansans diminishing as the state privatized its Medicaid program, de Rocha compared worried recipients to people accustomed to receiving a new car every year. “It’s very difficult to take away something once you get it,” she said. “People get used to it. They think that’s what they need.”

De Rocha, who came to Topeka during Brownback’s first year in office, after working for 20 years on Capitol Hill in Washington, goes out of her way to pick fights. She monitors the comment sections of news stories, often “clarifying” elements of the story or adding trollish remarks. Last year she jumped into a Facebook thread when The Wichita Eagle printed a story about a suggestion by the Kansas League of Women Voters that state colleges offer courses on voter registration.

“So it takes an entire semester to learn how to register to vote. Really?” de Rocha asked. “Do we want these slow learners voting?”

The remark would have been insensitive no matter who typed it. Coming from the spokeswoman for a Kansas agency that serves people with developmental disabilities, though, it was preposterous. Advocates demanded de Rocha’s firing, but she survived and has since taken on more responsibilities. A fortress as beleaguered as Sam Brownback’s administration needs a pitbull at the gate, and de Rocha is willing to play the part.

“The thing is, you can either be the prey or the predator,” she tells The Pitch. “I’m tired of being the prey.”

In a conversation punctuated with heavy sighs, de Rocha tells me she’s weary of being the target of hateful remarks in newspaper comment sections. She says the state’s media insist on “taking things out of context and leaving out crucial elements.”

But de Rocha surely knows she’s playing in a dirty sandbox when she signs into any given comments section. And in a state as troubled as Kansas, reporters aren’t about to parrot the administration’s line.

De Rocha deserves a measure of respect for diligence; she responds faithfully to every media inquiry, even if the response is often an argument. And she is well-versed in the intricacies of the agencies she represents and their programs.

Still, her instinct to protect the Brownback administration seems to know no boundaries.

Last year The Kansas City Star published a moving tribute to David Wiebe, an icon in the Kansas mental-health community. The author was Mark Wiebe, David’s son and a former Star reporter. At the time he worked for the Wyandotte Center for Behavioral Health Care. Wiebe wrote about his father’s conviction that people with mental illnesses are best served when they receive timely care in a strong community-based system. “Unfortunately, that system has recently lost about half of its state funding for safety net care,” he wrote.

That single, accurate sentence in an essay of personal reflection earned Mark Wiebe a long, scolding telephone call from de Rocha, who said she was calling at the behest of the governor’s office.

“I was dumbfounded,” Wiebe tells me. “She was on the phone with me for at least a half-hour, complaining about that one sentence, which didn’t even mention the Brownback administration. Never once did she say she was sorry about my dad.”

A communications director for a state government might be a lightning rod now and then, but she’s not supposed to bring the thunder to individual citizens. Flaks in other places have been fired or nudged to the side for scrapes far milder than the ones de Rocha has found herself in — or initiated.

But De Rocha’s style is in many ways emblematic of the Brownback administration: Show no pity, admit no wrong. In fact, she might just take the governor’s thinking to its next logical level, imagining people divided into predators and prey.

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