‘They Need That Post Office’: Ky. Post Offices Have Been Disappearing For A Decade Tuesday, Sep 1 2020 

Graham Ambrose

The post office in Waddy, Ky., an unincorporated town in rural Shelby County. It’s the closest post office for residents of Mount Eden, where the post office has been closed.

Residents of Paint Lick don’t like to dwell on what’s been lost: the grocery stores, the gas station, the barbershop, the local bank, and countless residents who have moved away or died. 

Instead, in this rural Appalachian town in Garrard County suffering decades of business loss, residents have championed an attitude that’s become something of a civic slogan: “Press on regardless,” in the words of a long-departed local leader, Dean Cornett.

What presses on are the few institutions that remain: a doctor’s office, an environmental consultancy, an auto mechanic, and what might be the most important institution of all—the post office.

“The mail is just vital to folks out in a rural community,” said Joe Brown, a lifelong resident of Paint Lick. 

But Paint Lick’s post office is struggling. It’s now open just two hours a day for retail, and rumors have been swirling for years it will close. Brown said he’s thankful the post office is still open at all. 

Kentucky’s rural post offices are threatened. Over the last decade, more post offices have been closed in Kentucky than in any other state, according to data from the U.S. Postal Service. Closures have hit every region, from coal towns in Appalachia to villages in the open fields of the Jackson Purchase. 

What’s lost is a beloved institution and last public commons in communities with few if any public spaces left.

“The post office is a gathering place. It’s a hub for local information exchange,” said Ken Tunnell, a Paint Lick resident and sociologist who taught at Eastern Kentucky University.

Most of the Kentucky towns that have lost a post office are rural, unincorporated, and losing people. Disproportionately poor and elderly, they’re places where vital services are already difficult to access and where high-paying jobs can be hard to find. 

For years, conservative policymakers have targeted rural mail delivery for privatization, restructuring, or downsizing. The fight ramped up last month when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said the Postal Service should save money by slashing jobs and reducing rural delivery. President Donald Trump has opposed an emergency USPS bailout and efforts to expand mail-balloting in the November election.

Rural Kentuckians are paying attention. The USPS delivers mail to every address in the state, providing prescription medicine, Social Security Checks, and correspondence to the most remote homes not reached by private carriers. 

Mail delays can be dangerous. Brown, 74, is an Army veteran who relies on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver medication. This summer, medicine that typically arrives in 18 days took five weeks to arrive. 

Those rallying behind the USPS also say rural post office closures and service reductions undermine something more basic: local autonomy and identity.

“Part of the pride of the community in that you have a post office,” said Brown. “In our little village of Paint Lick, it’d be another devastating blow if the post office were no longer there.”

Trusted in rural Kentucky

The Postal Service is one of the oldest government services, enshrined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The first post office in the present-day borders of Kentucky was opened in Danville, in 1792.

Today Americans consistently rate the Postal Service to be one of the most trusted government agencies. The support is bipartisan. A public opinion poll conducted by Pew Research Center in March found an overwhelming 91% of both Democrats and Republicans had a favorable view of the Postal Service.

Katie Rollins knows that trust firsthand. She worked for 12 years at the post office in Paint Lick, her adopted hometown. Residents still trust her with confidential tasks.

When one elderly Paint Lick resident needed cash to send her great-granddaughter a birthday gift, she recruited Rollins to help. The two were strangers, but the elderly woman trusted Rollins to withdraw money from her bank account, unsupervised, because she knew Rollins had worked at the post office.

“I was like a social worker to those people,” Rollins said. 

The post office is where the oft-anonymous government bureaucracy gets a human face. As a post office employee, Rollins said she often assisted adults who needed help drafting letters, filling out government forms, or writing checks. Others were in poor health and couldn’t sign their own name, let alone hold a pen. 

In Kentucky, nearly half of all people older than 65 live in rural areas. That’s one of the highest rates in the country. Kentucky also claims one of the highest rates of poverty for older Americans. 

“These elderly people down here don’t have anybody,” Rollins said. “They need that post office.” 

The post office forms a core part of rural history, particularly in Appalachian coal country. 

More than a century ago, when permanent settlements developed around Kentucky’s coal mines, records were often lost or not kept in the first place.

But there was one date that was both well-documented and well-accepted to mean a community was on the map: the date its post office was established.

“We tag the history of a lot of these little places by when the post office was established, because we don’t have records of when the first ton of coal was brought out, or when the first people were settled,” explained Ken Martis, a professor emeritus of geography at West Virginia University. “The post office was a good marker of the historical establishment of a place.”

The loss of a post office can signal the opposite: a community in decline. Most towns that have lost their post office also are losing residents and businesses.

Two decades of challenges for USPS

Mount Eden, a small unincorporated town in rural Spencer County, lost its post office in 2017, according to USPS. The building is now home to a maker of headstones and monuments. 

Residents miss the convenience of a local post office. They have to travel 10 miles to Waddy, the next-closest post office. But they still get home mail delivery six days a week, an essential if imperfect service. Longtime Mount Eden residents said there are occasional service delays as well as high rates of carrier turnover. 

“As far as our mail service, they’re very spotty,” said resident Chris Hensley. Part of the problem is that the rural carriers are overworked, he added.

Mount Eden’s post office was one of 699 shuttered nationwide between 2010 and 2020, according to USPS data. Kentucky was hit hardest. 

The 62 offices closed in the Bluegrass State means one in every 11 discontinued post offices was in Kentucky. West Virginia’s 54 closed offices ranked second, while Pennsylvania’s 52 came in third.

The Postal Service workforce is shrinking, too. In 1999, USPS employed roughly 800,000 career workers, according to USPS data. Twenty years later, that figure had fallen to 500,000, a 37% decrease. 

In Kentucky, the number of postal workers has dropped about 8% over the last decade, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The decline in Postal Service jobs is a particular crisis in rural communities, where government mail service is most essential and where delivering mail has cleared a reliable path into the middle class. 

“Especially in rural areas, where jobs are harder to come by that aren’t just minimum wage, people feel really lucky to get a job like it,” said Silas House, a Lexington-based writer who worked as a mail carrier in rural Laurel County in the early 2000s. 

House, who recently defended rural mail service in an essay for The Atlantic, said the job was “incredibly hard,” involving long days on his feet, uncooperative weather, and difficult terrain in the mountains of Appalachia. He had a gun pulled on him twice. Yet the work remains essential, he said.

“A lot of these areas don’t have UPS or FedEx, or those services are much more expensive,” House said. “My service was a real lifeline in many ways for the people in the very rural areas.”

Cuts coming?

The USPS faces big challenges. Due to the ubiquity of email and social media, the emergence of competitor online retailers such as Amazon, and a 2006 law requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund its retiree benefits program, mail volume is dwindling while USPS debts mount.

In the third quarter of FY20, USPS reported a net loss of $2.2 billion, nearly matching the $2.3 billion net loss in the same quarter last year. In addition to attacking voting by mail, Trump has said he opposes a USPS bailout. Last week, Sen. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said cutting a single day of rural service would save up to $1.5 billion. He also suggested reducing rural delivery to as few as two days a week.  

But advocates of rural delivery emphasize that the value of the Postal Service shouldn’t be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis.

“The Postal Service is not a business. It’s a government service,” said Stan Brunn, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kentucky who grew up in the rural Midwest. “It’s designed to serve everybody. It’s not just serving specific clientele.”

A USPS spokesperson based in Kentucky said there are currently no plans to close post offices.

As states and counties prepare for unprecedented numbers of voters to participate in the November election by mail, some have accused the Trump administration of sabotaging the USPS as a way to undercut Democrats. In a Congressional hearing earlier this month, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was grilled by lawmakers over his decision to cut some employee overtime and remove sorting machines. DeJoy told senators delivering election mail was a “sacred duty” that the USPS would fulfill “securely and on time.”

Last week, residents of Inez, a small Appalachian town in Martin County, staged a protest against Robert “Mike” Duncan, chairman of the USPS board of governors and a friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Protester Mickey McCoy said Duncan was “slowing down the post office” to benefit Trump. 

With so many residents of Martin County living in rural areas at or below the poverty level, “this is like a kick in the nuts to all of them for slowing down the Postal Service,” said McCoy, a retired English teacher who serves on the county board of education.  

Caught in the middle of the politics are rural Americans, who live in communities where political frustrations are already palpable.

“This is just another assault on people and communities that in many cases feel abandoned already,” said Shane Barton, an economic developer at the University of Kentucky and candidate for Berea City Council. A ninth-generation resident of Appalachia, Barton said the Postal Service strengthens “mountain values” such as resilience and neighborliness. “However large or small that post office is, it provides a public benefit.”

Data from the U.S. Postal Service shows mail service performance, a measurement of delivery and processing times compared to expectations, declined in July. 

Kentucky ranks in the bottom 10 states in per-capita mail sorters, processors, and processing machine operators, according to BLS data. That’s one of several concerns for the November election.

In Kentucky, any voter who wants an absentee ballot can request one at GoVoteKy.com, and state officials have approved a plan through which any voter concerned about the spread of COVID-19 can cast an absentee ballot and vote by mail.

Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day — Tuesday, Nov. 3 — and received by county clerks by Nov. 6 in order to count. The three-day cushion after Election Day could help mitigate some issues with mail delays.

To ensure the integrity of the mail system in the small towns where post offices are still open, residents say it’s paramount they stay open.

When asked what the closure of the Paint Lick post office would mean for the town, Rollins refused to consider the possibility. She and the rest of her adopted town plan to press on regardless of obstacles.

“It won’t close in Paint Lick, Ky. We will stop it,” she said. “We’re going to strive, no matter what. We have people down here who care.”

Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter covering social services and youth issues. He is a Report for America Corps member. Contact Graham at gambrose@kycir.org.

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Louisville men’s basketball stops operations after positive COVID-19 tests Wednesday, Jul 8 2020 

By John McCarthy —

University of Louisville men’s basketball activities have come to an abrupt halt after two members of the organization tested positive for COVID-19. U of L athletics has been testing student-athletes for COVID-19 regularly since May 29. U of L is not disclosing who tested positive within the organization.

This comes nearly two months after U of L reopened its doors to student-athletes for voluntary workouts. At this point, it is unknown if any other members of the men’s basketball organization have been exposed to those who tested positive.

“[Men’s] basketball is certainly a sport that is going to get a lot of attention. These two individuals exhibited signs and we were able to have them tested on Monday. Because we are part of the U of L health system we were able to get those results back quickly. Through quarantining and contact tracing we are able to make sure we have everyone covered in the program,” Athletic Director Vince Tyra said during a virtual press conference on July 7.

U of L men’s basketball has been following all CDC approved guidelines and regulations for involuntary workouts leading up to the incident. Proper quarantine guidelines will be in play for the members of the men’s basketball organization that were potentially exposed to the virus.

The possibility of positive tests has trickled into other sports as well. U of L football has continued to push back the start date of their season. The ACC’s original plan for the Cardinals to host North Carolina State on Sept. 2 is to be determined.

“You have to know that if you enter a season you are going to run into instances like we are running into now,” Tyra said. “There is a lot of monitoring going on to discuss these situations that campuses are individually having.”

Vince Tyra talked about the steps that would be taken if mid-season positive COVID-19 tests occur. “You have to be prepared. That is where you get into situations whether it is a no-contest or a forfeit. These are going to be things that we are dealing with for the first time,” Tyra said.

The 2020-2021 men’s basketball schedule has yet to be released.

File Photo // The Louisville Cardinal

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Rape Crisis Centers, Domestic Violence Shelters Are Open — With Some Changes Friday, Mar 20 2020 

Even as large swaths of society hunker down, Kentucky’s domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers are preparing to stay open — and deal with a potential influx of clients. 

“We really, really need to get the word out about the fact that we are open, we’re doing business, we’re here for the community,” said Angela Yannelli, the executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The coalition’s member agencies provide domestic violence services and shelter across the state. All 15 agencies are, at this time, planning to continue to provide services during the coronavirus, Yannelli said, and each is coming up with its own emergency action plan to ensure they can keep the doors open. 

But they are reducing some services, and eliminating others altogether. Some rape crisis centers are no longer offering in-person hospital advocacy to people getting rape kit exams, and domestic violence shelters are concerned about how to reach people who may be isolated with their abusers. 

At Greenhouse 17, the domestic violence shelter based in Lexington and serving central Kentucky, the majority of services are running as usual. They have more than 40 women and children living there currently, and shelter employees have had to implement new procedures, like preparing to isolate residents and taking temperatures every time someone comes in or out. They’re also scrambling to provide activities for children suddenly out of school.

The shelter has suspended non-residential support groups, but they’re considering ways to have virtual meetings. And they’re still attending court as advocates for people trying to get protective orders. (Though courts are largely closed, emergency hearings like those for protective orders are still happening.)

For Greenhouse 17 executive director Darlene Thomas, her main concern is keeping her staff healthy and keeping the doors open. They’ve sent some employees to work from home already and are transitioning to a new schedule: five days working at the shelter, 10 days working from home, to ensure people aren’t showing symptoms when they return. 

She said the only pushback she’s gotten from staff is from those who want to work more. 

“This agency is no different than a police officer who shows up every day,” she said. “They wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s why they do this work, it’s in service to others.” 

The Center for Women and Families, serving Louisville and the surrounding counties, has also instituted temperature checks at its domestic violence shelter and has reserved a room for quarantining, if needed. 

“We’ve asked [the residents] to take on the responsibility of making sure that their rooms are extremely clean,” said CEO Elizabeth Wessels-Martin. “They often will ask for more [supplies] because they’re watching the news, they’re hearing all this so they want their environments to be kept clean.”

The center also serves as the region’s rape crisis center, one of 15 across the state. As a result of the coronavirus, they have scaled back some of their therapy services, and are no longer providing in-person hospital advocacy for people getting rape kit exams. 

Wessels-Martin said they’re working with hospitals to provide phone or FaceTime advocacy instead. She said they’ve gotten fewer hospital calls than usual recently, which is a concern. 

If victims are worried about going to the hospital right now, she said, they can always get a rape kit exam at the Center itself, at 927 S 2nd St. in Louisville. 

Pandemic Spurs Domestic Violence Risk Factors 

In addition to preparing for a pandemic, domestic violence and rape crisis centers are also concerned they may see an increase in the number of people requiring services. 

“Economic stress and social isolation, low income, unemployment, heavy alcohol, and drug use, these are all risk factors for the perpetration of domestic violence,” said Yannelli. “All of those are byproducts of the coronavirus pandemic.”

She said the state’s crisis lines, which can be found at KCADV.org, are open and staffed 24/7. They are prepared to offer people resources as they need them. But the greater concern is people who may not be able to reach out for help because they’re isolated with their abuser. 

“A lot of victims call us when the perpetrator has left the house and the kids have gone to school, and they have that privacy,” said Wessels-Martin. “They don’t have that privacy anymore.”

The crisis centers are talking about ways to reach people in those circumstances, but Wessels-Martin encourages people in a situation that may get volatile to make a safety plan ahead of time, if possible. That may include being honest with a friend or family member about your fears, and giving them a code word to indicate that you’re in danger. 

The concern is particularly heightened for people with children that are home from school.

“With children being in the home 24/7, they are potentially going to witness domestic violence at a larger rate than before,” said Yannelli. “That’s something that we know is also a risk factor for future perpetration. We can’t allow that to happen. We need to protect the children.”

All three women interviewed for this story equated their role to those of first responders, responsible for keeping people safe. Much like police departments or EMS, that responsibility doesn’t go away just because there is a pandemic. 

Even as they see schools, restaurants and public facing businesses shut down, they’ll keep offering services as long as they are able.  

“It’s very possible that, at some point, the governor may tell us that we have to shut down,” said Yannelli. “It would be an awful day when we have to do that, because lives will be lost.” 

How to get help:

Find the closest domestic violence shelter here 

Louisville area: Center for Women and Families, 844-237-2331

Lexington area: Greenhouse 17, 800.544.2022

National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE

How to help: Shelters reported needing cleaning supplies (bleach, hand sanitizer, wipes, paper towels), diapers and baby supplies, and food, particularly fresh meat. They can always use monetary donations as well. Contact your nearest shelter to see what they need.

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Insult To Injury: State Adds 32% When It Collects UK Medical Debt Tuesday, Mar 17 2020 

Kristin Hurst walked into the Kentucky lottery office in Lexington in May of last year expecting to claim a $1,000 prize from a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Instead, the lottery employee told Hurst there was a red flag on her account. From the parking lot, she made a nervous call to her fiancé. It was his ticket she was trying to cash in, but something was wrong. She had to go to the main Kentucky lottery office in Frankfort to find out what.

An official there told Hurst she and her fiancé wouldn’t see any of the prize money. The Kentucky Department of Revenue intercepted it.

Her luck gave the state the opportunity to collect a portion of a $3,100 medical bill from a trip, eight years prior, to the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital.

Hurst, who lives in Lexington, was shocked and embarrassed. She had been working diligently over the past few years to pay off other debts and keeping a close eye on her credit score but, until that moment, she says she had no idea she owed anything to the hospital.


UK HealthCare is the only hospital system in Kentucky tapping the Department of Revenue to collect its debts.

“If I had known, I could have been doing something about it,” Hurst said. “I hadn’t gotten anything in the mail, no type of contact. Nothing.”

She and her fiancé didn’t have extravagant plans for the money — just help covering bills and taking care of their two kids. She thought the lottery ticket would solve their problems for a little while. “But nope,” Hurst said. “It’s gone. They took it.”

And it’s far from over. The Department of Revenue tacked on a 25% collection fee, and interest ranging from 5 to 7% over the last nine years.

Thanks to interest and fees, Hurst’s outstanding debt ballooned from about $3,100 to more than $5,000 before she found out about it.

Each year, the Department of Revenue collects on unpaid medical bills from tens of thousands of UK hospital patients like Hurst. They seize state tax refunds, confiscate lottery winnings or garnish paychecks — methods private bill collectors couldn’t use without a court order.

Some patients don’t know they owe the money, or thought their insurance had paid the bill. Others simply can’t afford to pay. 

The practice may face renewed scrutiny as more and more Kentuckians seek medical care for the coronavirus. Kentucky had confirmed 22 positive cases as of Monday evening, including one death. UK’s Chandler hospital treated at least one coronavirus patient. In response to a question at a press conference on Monday, Governor Andy Beshear said he did not want to see wage garnishments at this time and would talk to the revenue department about the process.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton told KyCIR in February that unpaid bills can impact the cost of care for everyone.

“We need to make a good faith effort and have a comprehensive process for trying to collect payments for the health care that’s provided,” Blanton said. “Whether that’s through the Department of Revenue or a third party, in some ways, doesn’t matter. We need to make every effort in a good faith manner to collect that debt.”

UK HealthCare is the only hospital system in Kentucky tapping the Department of Revenue to collect its debts. While debtors might battle bill collectors and lawsuits from other hospitals, UK hospital patients face the much more powerful state. 

The arrangement is mutually beneficial: UK HealthCare can avail itself of the state’s far-reaching debt collection tools. State government gets a revenue boost from the added interest and collection fees.

State data show that it has collected $76 million from patients this way since 2009. Most went back to UK HealthCare to pay for medical bills. But the state kept $18 million for itself. That includes $4 million in interest that has been added to the commonwealth’s general fund. 


Kentucky charges the highest interest rate and penalty of any state that collects medical debt this way, according to a KyCIR review of collection policies.

A recent investigation by the Charleston Post and Courier found that 13 states allow certain hospitals to use the state’s debt collection tools to collect on medical debts. KyCIR contacted each of those states.

In neighboring Ohio, for example, patients are charged a 5% fee by the attorney general’s office for collection costs. (Only one state-affiliated hospital, at the University of Toledo, adds 5% interest.) In Iowa, the agency that submitted the debt to the Department of Revenue for collection pays the fees, not the debtor. 

April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center specializing in debt collection, said Kentucky’s interest and fees significantly increase the cost to vulnerable consumers. “If you are adding a flat fee like 25%, that fee is not at all related to the overall cost of collection,” Kuehnhoff said. “[It’s] really just a punitive fee being assessed without any regard for the ability to pay.”

Department of Revenue spokesperson Jill Midkiff said in an emailed statement that the Department of Revenue performs collection services for a variety of executive state agencies. 

Midkiff said the department doesn’t set the fees or interest rate: the legislature does.

Hurst was living in her car in September of 2011, working for minimum wage at a Sbarro pizza shop when the hospital says her debt originated. She doesn’t know if she actually went in September, but remembers that health issues sent her to the emergency room a few times that year, usually to treat allergic reactions so severe that her throat would swell shut.

Hurst said she chose UK’s Chandler hospital specifically because she didn’t have insurance and knew the hospital offered charity care to treat low-income, uninsured patients. Each visit, she said she requested charity care and left with the understanding that she wouldn’t owe the hospital anything.

On March 9, Hurst received a letter from the Department of Revenue informing her that her $75 tax refund was withheld to put towards the debt. The letter came with instructions on how to pay online and says that interest will keep accruing until the balance is paid in full. Kentucky had declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus three days earlier.

Hurst says she will pay the hospital any money she truly owes.

What bothers her is the lack of communication and the fact that the university hospital seemingly made no effort to contact her until the debt had grown so large — and she walked into a lottery office with a ticket worth $1,000.

Blanton of UK said the hospital couldn’t discuss individual cases but the billing office makes multiple attempts to contact each patient.

Although Hurst was homeless at the time of the visit, she had a stable address soon after. Other creditors sent certified mail, Hurst said.

A full time student, Hurst has no income at the moment. But she’s set to graduate from the University of Louisville with a degree in social work this spring. She’s worried about what this debt could mean for her future after fighting for so long to get back on her feet.

“I’ve come this far and now I’m terrified,” she said. “I’m not rich by any means, so when that little state refund comes back or if they threaten my paychecks, it would take a long time to pay off.”

Unforeseen Consequences

UK HealthCare —  the brand name for the University of Kentucky’s healthcare system that includes four hospitals and other medical facilities —  brought in $1.65 billion in revenue from patient services in the 2019 fiscal year.

The vast majority of this comes from payments from patients’ insurance providers. When patients are uninsured or if insurance won’t cover their treatment, they have 120 days to pay the hospital. After that the debt is serviced by Central Kentucky Management Services. Inc., the entity responsible for billing and administration of debts to UK HealthCare. 

If the management service is unable to collect the debt, it is transferred to the Kentucky Department of Revenue, which adds the fees and interest. 

The 25% collection fees go to the agency’s Enterprise Collection program. It collects debt for other state agencies, but UK medical debt alone brought in nearly $2 million in the 2019 fiscal year. State records show running the whole program cost $1.5 million that year.

The interest rates and collection fees the agency collects are set by state law that derives from an attempt to consolidate Kentucky state agencies debt collection practices under the Department of Revenue.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Damon Thayer and former Rep. Harry Moberly, Jr in 2004. It required all state agencies to turn “certified debts” over to the Department of Revenue. The University of Kentucky joined the program two years later in 2006.

Moberly, a Democrat from Richmond, retired in 2011 and says although he doesn’t remember the specific legislation, allowing the University of Kentucky to collect its medical bills using the state government isn’t something he would have done. “I wouldn’t have sponsored and I don’t think we would have passed a bill specifically for that intent. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be within the legal interpretation,” Moberly said. “Sometimes bills have unforeseen consequences that you don’t contemplate at the time.” 

Thayer, a Georgetown Republican and Majority Floor Leader, did not respond to requests for comment.

“You owe it and you’re gonna pay it”

Kuehnhoff of the National Consumer Law Center said the typical legal process for debt collection allows patients to challenge debts they believe are incorrect or unjust.

Allowing UK hospitals to turn debts over to the Department of Revenue amounts to a “short circuiting” of this process, Kuehnoff said.

“There’s no check, potentially, on the charge that’s being applied to the care,” she said.

Betsy Davis Stone, a health care law fellow at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said she regularly hears from patients who haven’t had a chance to challenge what UK HealthCare says they owe and are now facing collection from the state.

“Our state statutes lay out a process for people to be able to challenge debt and currently from talking to UK HealthCare patients we are not convinced that people are getting any part of that process,” Davis Stone said. “The people that are hurt most by these policies are the most vulnerable Kentuckians, the people that can’t afford to pay the big bill just to get UK HealthCare off their back.”

UK spokesperson Blanton said UK HealthCare complies with all federal and state laws. 

“We ask the Department of Revenue to intervene and assist only as a last resort, and that’s after every appeal and months of attempts have been exhausted,” Blanton said. “I know we’re not perfect. I’m sure people can point to mistakes that were made, but in the main, what you’ve got is a robust, comprehensive, compassionate and sensitive process.”

The final letter Central Kentucky Management Services sends to patients informs them they can appeal their debt by mailing supporting documents within 30 days. Since 2017, those hearings have been conducted by the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.

The attorney general’s office told KyCIR it has only heard three appeals. One was decided in favor of the patient.

State law says the Department of Revenue can’t collect on debt until appeals or conflicts have already been exhausted, and the department has no appeals process of its own. The department does, however, notify UK HealthCare’s debt collectors when someone disputes their debt. Records show that UK HealthCare has been notified of nearly 600 such disputes since 2016.

Jared Bennett

The Kentucky Department of Revenue has collected $19,091 from Lucy Alexander since 2015. They’ve also added $11,427 in fees and interest.

Lucy Alexander of Simpsonville tried to dispute her debt to UK after she went to the hospital for surgery to repair a hernia in 2012. Her insurer pre-approved the costly procedure and covered all but her $150 co-pay.

Months later, UK HealthCare sent Alexander a bill for $25,340.

“I was in shock, I was scared,” Alexander said. “I thought ‘this has to be a mistake.’”

A registered radiologic technician, Alexander keeps meticulous records. She has documentation showing Blue Cross Blue Shield originally paid the hospital $21,944 for the procedure.

When she called the hospital, she was told that the hospital was investigating what went wrong and she should call back in two weeks. This process repeated for over a year.

She eventually discovered that the hospital had reimbursed Blue Cross Blue Shield’s payment and then re-billed the company, all without Alexander’s knowledge.

Blue Cross Blue Shield didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Alexander’s records show the company rejected the second claim. By the time she found out, it was too long after the surgery to file an appeal with the insurer. She says she didn’t know she could file an appeal with the hospital directly.

She enlisted the help of the surgeon who performed the procedure, who wrote a letter on her behalf to UK HealthCare and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Neither would budge.

“I felt like I was this little piece of fabric in their big quilt,” Alexander said. “You got nowhere with them. They said this is how it is, you owe it and you’re gonna pay it.”

More than a year after the surgery, Alexander learned the Department of Revenue was collecting her debt when they garnished an entire paycheck.

Federal law prohibits private debt collectors from garnishing more than 25% of someone’s paycheck, and communications from the department say they will only take 10%. But Alexander still has the pay stub.

Lucy Alexander’s pay stub from 2015 shows the Department of Revenue levied an entire paycheck to pay for her debt.

Midkiff, the Department of Revenue spokesperson, said last month the department could not comment on individual cases, but the accounts of Alexander and the other UK HealthCare patients described in this story “are generally inconsistent with collections law, DOR policy and mathematical calculations.”

Alexander, who is married with two children, had to borrow money from family and her employer to pay bills. She went to the Department of Revenue’s office in Frankfort to ask for help. “They did not want to hear anything about my story,” Alexander said. “They just wanted to know how much I could pay.”

Afraid the state would take another paycheck, Alexander set up a payment plan of $100 every two weeks and hired a lawyer. Alexander said after a few months of work, the lawyer told her there was nothing they could do.

“I fought tooth and nail,” Alexander said. “But you cannot fight with someone who is a billion dollar industry and is backed by the government.”

The state has withheld her tax refunds every year since 2015, ranging anywhere from $350 to $1,900.

“That was our extra money for our kids,” Alexander said.

As of January, the Department of Revenue has collected $19,091 from Alexander according to receipts from the department, three-fourths of her original bill. But she’s nowhere near paying off the debt. 

The Department of Revenue has added $11,427. The interest is still accruing.

Tax Season Prime Time For Garnishment

The most sure-fire method the Department of Revenue has to collect debts is by “offsetting” state income tax refunds. That’s why collections spike every spring, when Kentuckians file their taxes and the department confiscates them. 

But a court case in Franklin County aimed to put a pause on that practice, at least this tax season. Attorney Doug Richards is representing clients in a class action lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court which claims the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of Revenue deny patients due process and judicial oversight.

A motion Richards filed on February 12 would, if granted, require the Department of Revenue to follow its own rules for debt collection before it intercepts taxpayer’s refunds. Richards argues that, by sidestepping a thorough appeals process and clear communication with the debtor, the department is not following those rules. 

Kentucky’s courtrooms are currently closed statewide for a month to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate could rule still on the motion filed last month. The judge’s decision could impact all of the 32,500 accounts the Department of Revenue was servicing on behalf of UK HealthCare as of December.

The collection process violates the Kentucky Constitution, the lawsuit alleges, by “taking of the property of the Plaintiffs and class members, without due process of law.” 

“UK essentially acts as plaintiff, judge and jury over whether people owe it money,” Richards said.

Even if the judge acts to stop collections, the relief won’t help UK patients like Bobby King in Richmond. 

King had surgery in 2016 to remove a portion of his right leg that was infected with blood poisoning from diabetes. He was working for UK at the time, first as an EMT and then at a desk job when his health began to fail. 

After another surgery last April, King had to leave work, and he fell behind on some bills.

King said he was never warned by the hospital that his debt could be transferred to the Department of Revenue.

“I’ve never seen a hospital be able to use a government agency to collect for them before, so whenever I got a threatening letter from the Department of Revenue, it just kind of rocked me,” King said. “These people are threatening to take my home, my vehicle, stuff like that. It’s crazy.”

The debt is around $1,200 with fees and interest. Like most people with chronic medical conditions, King is juggling several medical bills. 

But the UK HealthCare debt came with a threat that the state agency might take his property, and that was the final straw. He is in the process of declaring bankruptcy.

Contact Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org.

The post Insult To Injury: State Adds 32% When It Collects UK Medical Debt appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Kentucky Public Health Lab Has Faced Underfunding, Turnover In Recent Years Friday, Mar 13 2020 

The state agency tasked with Kentucky’s coronavirus testing has been dealing with funding issues, struggling to keep up with mandatory technology upgrades and retain qualified staff — all while grappling with a hepatitis A outbreak and the opioid crisis.

That’s what the Department of Public Health told the governor and legislature this fall when it filed its request for funding in preparation for budget season. The request was submitted a month before the first COVID-19 case appeared in China, but even then, the department warned that failure to invest in public health programs like the state Epidemiology and Health Planning program “could result in a resurgence of preventable and/or controllable communicable diseases, inability to detect outbreaks and epidemics.”

Three labs are now testing for coronavirus in Kentucky. But until academic and commercial labs came online on Thursday, the state lab has bore the weight of testing for the outbreak. Thursday morning, 64 Kentuckians had been tested. But by Thursday evening, after the new labs were testing samples, the number of tests rose to 118. So far, Kentucky has logged 11 confirmed cases and two presumptive positive cases.

The 2021-22 budget is not yet final, but so far, neither the governor’s recommended budget nor the legislature fulfill the Department of Public Health’s request for $122 million and $124 million respectively. The governor’s recommended budget, introduced in January, provides $94 million and $95 million over the biennium. The spending plan put forward by Republican lawmakers and currently under consideration by the Senate provides $102 million both years.

This comes after years of underfunding. During the previous budget biennium, which includes the 2020 fiscal year which ends June 30th, the Department of Public Health requested $124 and $127 million for each respective year. The enacted budget provided $76 million each year.

Departments frequently request more than they receive, and there’s simply not a lot of money to spread around Kentucky’s budget. But the coronavirus’ spread throughout the state shows how decisions made during budget season have unforeseen and lasting consequences.

Department of Public Health budget request

The Division of Epidemiology and Health Planning’s fiscal justification.

At a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear said that until larger private and academic labs to test for coronavirus get up and running, the state’s goal is to do the best it can with the resources available. 

“Would we like more funding for our Department of Public Health? I’m sure [our Commissioner for Public Health] would say, ‘Absolutely,’” Beshear said. “Would we like more equipment at our Department of Public Health? Absolutely. But for now I believe we are taking the best steps we can.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees the Department of Public Health, did not provide comment for this story.

Not Enough Equipment, Not Enough People

Federal funds cover about half of the Kentucky Department of Public Health’s budget. Most of that money goes towards local health departments, which have themselves been struggling to stay afloat thanks to funding shortages and rising pension costs.

Fiscal problems are apparent in another section of the public health department: the Division of Laboratory Services (DLS). The DLS describes its role as testing and analysis that “supports critical activities like disease investigation, control, prevention and surveillance.”

“In order to maintain current services, but also implement new technology that already has been adopted by other states, DLS needs increased General Fund support,” the request reads.

The laboratory department requested $5.4 million in 2021 and $5.5 million in 2022. The governor’s budget would actually provide more than what the department requests. But the previous budget has undercut the lab’s request by about $700,000 for the last two years. The Republican legislature’s budget does not provide that level of detail.

The Division of Lab Services gets support from the federal government through the Centers for Disease Control’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness grant. But it also asked for more state money to sustain the program and implement new, needed technology.

“In fact, DLS has been forced to shift focus on funding salaries and fringe benefits to ensure competent lab staff, rather than equipment, supplies and training,” the request said.

Department of Public Health budget request

The Division of Lab Services says manpower is tough to retain.

The labs told legislators and the governor’s budget office that two of its information systems would reach “end of life” status in 2019. The systems support federally-mandated testing such as screening newborn babies for diseases and tests for HIV, hepatitis and the flu.

DLS bought the one system needed for microbiology testing for $600,000, but the division asked for $1.5 million to cover the upgrading costs of both systems. Without upgrades, DLS said, “there is the potential for the inability to test and result in federally mandated deficiencies, which could lead to developmental issues or even death in the affected babies of the commonwealth.”

Retaining competent staff has been a constant problem for the labs, according to the budget documents. “Since DLS is at the cutting edge of technology, individuals tend to leave for other jobs once they acquire the skills,” the request said.

Funding A Struggle Nationwide

This is not unique to Kentucky. While testifying before the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, CDC director Robert Redfield said that underfunding of public health labs nationwide has contributed to the difficulty in getting coronavirus testing up to speed.

“The truth is we’ve underinvested in the public health labs,” Redfield said. “There’s not enough equipment, there’s not enough people, there’s not enough internal capacity, there’s no search capacity.”

Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, addresses a briefing on the latest information about the Coronavirus Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in the James S. Brady Briefing Room of the White House.

Rep. Steven Rudy, R-Paducah, the chairman of the House committee that authored the budget bill, did not respond to requests for comment.

In its funding request, the lab said it has struggled to fund specific program areas, including programs aimed at testing for HIV as well as chlamydia and gonorrhea, two sexually transmitted diseases that have been on the rise in Kentucky and other states in the region.

Federal funding for HIV testing decreased by $30,000 during the previous biennium, and the department asked for more money to cover the extra costs, which the department says include direct personnel and indirect costs. The department request says continued financial support from the state is vital due to the opioid epidemic that increases the likelihood of transmitting infectious diseases through needles. The funding is important, the report says, “particularly in light of the lesson learned in regards to the Hepatitis A outbreak, which was at one time, the nation’s largest.”

The epidemiology department, which is responsible for investigating and controlling outbreaks such as coronavirus, relies on the general fund for only 6% of its annual budget. The rest is a combination of federal funding and revenue generated through selling birth, death and marriage certificates and drug rebates from the Kentucky AIDS Drug Assistance Program.

But that 6% is crucial, the report said, because the state’s contribution helps with matching requirements that are needed to qualify and receive federal grant awards.

The public health department’s budget request lists $57 million in expenditures for epidemiology each year of the 2021-2022 budget, which includes federal spending. The state’s contribution under this request would be $10.9 million each year.

The governor’s version contributes less than half of this amount for epidemiology: $3.2 million each year.

The post Kentucky Public Health Lab Has Faced Underfunding, Turnover In Recent Years appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

For Many In Kentucky, A Sick Day Means No Pay Wednesday, Mar 11 2020 

The best advice health officials have amidst coronavirus fears: wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay home if you’re sick. 

But for many Kentuckians, that last option is not feasible. 

Kentucky is in a region that has the least access to paid sick leave, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. About 40% of private sector workers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi don’t have paid sick leave, the report found.  

“Low wage jobs are jobs at the front line of public interaction,” said Kentucky Center for Economic Policy executive director Jason Bailey. 

He pointed to childcare workers, home health aides, nursing home workers and restaurant and retail workers as some of the people most affected. 

“Those are the jobs that often don’t have paid sick leave, but yet are constantly interacting with the public,” he said. “We’re putting ourselves at great risk by the fact that we have so many people in those positions and in those situations who just don’t have the opportunity to take a day off.”

Twelve states and Washington, D.C. currently require employers to provide paid sick leave. Kentucky does not. 

“We’re really in a vulnerable situation… because we haven’t taken those actions,” Bailey said. “In the short term, there needs to be some immediate action to allow people to take paid sick days. And then longer term, one of the ways we prepare is to have these laws in place.”

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey has proposed a bill that would require Kentucky employers to provide paid sick leave. Employees would be entitled to eight hours of paid sick leave after 120 hours of work, and then accrue 1.5 hours for every 30 hours worked. 

McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, said he thinks this would be an important step even if we weren’t facing coronavirus. But he said the expanding epidemic may lay bare how important these sort of protections are. 

“The government is telling people to stay at home,” said McGarvey. “But if there’s no paid sick leave, then if someone stays at home, they might risk losing their home if they can’t make the rent payment at the end of the month.” 

The bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-led state house, which, in 2017, passed legislation that squashed efforts by local governments to pass ordinances requiring paid sick leave. 

That bill prohibited local governments from setting their own requirements for employers to provide “a certain wage or fringe benefit other than as determined by the employer,” effectively banning cities or counties from setting their own minimum wage or sick leave requirements. 

Kentucky Restaurant Association President Stacy Roof said she’s only heard from a few restaurants concerned about coronavirus. Her advice is simple: encourage employees to stay home if they’re sick and report symptoms if they have them. 

She said KRA’s members ensure that employees “have reasonable assurance that they aren’t going to be in trouble if they’re sick and have to be at home.” 

But, she acknowledged, the employee often needs the pay and is hesitant to call out sick in any hourly position. 

“So it’s not necessarily that the employer doesn’t respect or accommodate that, it’s that [the employee] doesn’t necessarily report it,” Roof said. “They don’t want to lose their wage.” 

But still, she said, paid sick leave should be up to each individual business. 

“They know their business model,” she said, “and what works for them.” 

Several national corporations have changed their sick leave policies in light of coronavirus, including grocery store chain Trader Joe’s. Darden Restaurants Inc., which operates Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and other restaurants, is now giving all hourly workers paid sick leave. 

A spokesperson told Bloomberg that the policy change was already underway, but the company sped up the process in light of fears about coronavirus and COVID-19. 

Louisville is home to several national fast food corporations, including Yum! Brands, Texas Roadhouse, Papa Johns and Long John Silver’s, as well as gas station chain Thorntons. 

KyCIR reached out to all five, as well as Manna Inc., a local franchisee company with almost 300 restaurants in several states. 

None responded to requests for comment on their coronavirus plans for their employees. A Yum! Brands spokesperson sent a statement saying they’ve reinforced sanitation and hygiene at their restaurants and are monitoring the progression of COVID-19.

“We will continue to maintain our high standards and protocols for health and hygiene, as well as follow any locally-recommended guidance provided by health authorities,” the statement said.

The statement did not address whether their employees have paid sick leave.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Yum! Brands. Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

The post For Many In Kentucky, A Sick Day Means No Pay appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Coronavirus Spread May Test Already Troubled Kentucky Nursing Homes Tuesday, Mar 10 2020 

Nursing homes and their residents are vulnerable to serious harm as the coronavirus spreads, and federal data show that infection control has been a problem at nursing homes across Kentucky.

Kentucky nursing homes have the third highest rate of serious deficiencies per facility in the country, according to a ProPublica analysis of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data. And the virus can have major impact even at nursing homes with strong safety records: At least 19 people have died and at least 70 staff members have displayed coronavirus symptoms in connection with an outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington.

The Life Care Center is a five-star nursing home, meaning the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services deemed it much better than the average nursing home.

Nursing homes in Kentucky, however, have long been struggling with staffing shortages and quality of care issues. 

In Louisville, federal data show that most nursing homes have struggled with being prepared for, or dealing with, issues around infection. Inspectors flagged deficiencies related to infection control at 38 of Jefferson County’s 45 federally regulated nursing homes in at least one inspection since 2017.

Kentucky’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Sherry Culp said most of these deficiencies were isolated incidents that presented minimal or no immediate harm to residents. The ombudsman is a state program to advocate for residents of nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

Culp said facilities should take extra precaution as the disease spreads and build in extra time for things like washing staff and resident’s hands.

“Proper hand washing is one of the things that has come up repeatedly in the education of the general public and hand washing has been a problem in nursing facilities,” Culp said.

Inspectors observed such a deficiency at Landmark of Louisville Rehabilitation and Nursing in August of 2019 when a unit manager handled soiled dressing and cleaned a wound without washing hands or changing gloves. This violated the facility’s infection control policy.

John Stare, a spokesperson for Landmark of Louisville, provided a statement to KyCIR which says the facility “is well aware” of the global concerns about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We are taking a very aggressive and proactive approach in preventing and, if necessary, defending against the virus through intense monitoring, screening, education and awareness, and appropriate prevention and management,” the statement said, while adding that Landmark of Louisville has implemented coronavirus plans based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.

Betsy Johnson, the president of the Kentucky Association of HealthCare Facilities and the Kentucky Center for Assisted Living, said long-term care facilities are required to have an infection prevention and control program. If a federal inspector tracks a deficiency, that doesn’t necessarily mean a facility has a failed infection control program, Johnson said.

“It just means you are in a situation where these things happen.

“You can have a five-star building doing everything correct and right and still potentially have an outbreak in that building,” Johnson said. “It reflects nothing on that building as far as their quality or their ability to control those types of things.”

The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidance to long-term care facilities to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear and the Kentucky Department of Health on Sunday advised nursing homes to restrict visitors who may bring the coronavirus into facilities.

On Tuesday, he went a step further: during his press briefing, Beshear issued “strong guidance” to nursing homes and long-term care facilities to restrict visitors.  

“Part of what we are announcing today is that we are restricting visitors to our long term care facilities,” said Eric Friedlander, acting Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary. “We are asking people not to visit. If it’s an end of life situation, obviously that’s different. But we are asking our facilities to make sure that they are sure of their infection control procedures, make sure that they are confident in their emergency procedures.”

Johnson’s association has scheduled weekly calls with the Kentucky Office of Inspector General, which regulates nursing homes. They began coordinating with state public health officials last week, after the outbreak was discovered at the Washington nursing home. 

None of the six cases in Kentucky, as of Monday night, had any ties to nursing homes. But Johnson said the facilities are already facing some challenges. 

Johnson said her association has heard from member facilities running low on protective gear like respiratory masks, which are already in short supply thanks to a difficult flu season.

Both Culp and Johnson agree the primary concern facing Kentucky’s nursing homes in the coming weeks will be the availability of qualified staff. Kentucky’s nursing homes are chronically short-staffed.

If staff start showing symptoms of the coronavirus disease and can’t come to work, that will make it all the more difficult to provide quality care.

“If those folks are getting sick and not showing up to work based on the recommended protocol then we are going to be having some serious issues that we will need to address,” Johnson said.

This story has been updated to include information from Tuesday’s press briefing. Contact Jared Bennett at (502) 814.6543 or jbennett@kycir.org.

The post Coronavirus Spread May Test Already Troubled Kentucky Nursing Homes appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

LMPD Announces Training, Procedure Changes In Wake Of KyCIR Investigation Wednesday, Feb 26 2020 

J. Tyler Franklin

Louisville Metro Police Lt. Shannon Lauder testifies during a Metro Council committee hearing called in response to a KyCIR investigation.

The Louisville Metro Police Department will add new training for patrol officers responding to victims of sexual assault and change some aspects of how they close rape cases, an LMPD official said Wednesday.

Lt. Shannon Lauder, who runs the special victims unit, testified about the changes at Metro Council’s public safety committee. Lauder was asked to testify in response to a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting story that found LMPD cleared three times as many 2017 rape cases “by exception” than they did by arrest.

That investigation found that the most common reason a case was cleared by exception was because prosecutors declined to take the case. 

Councilwoman Jessica Green, the committee chair and a former prosecutor, said she called Lauder to testify because she was disappointed with the way police responded to a rape report from Jen Sainato in January 2018. KyCIR’s story focused on Sainato’s case, including the way six officers crowded into her hotel room after she reported a rape.  

“I said it to you and I will say it publicly, without hesitation, that my impression of that initial interaction: it was horrendous,” Green said to Lauder.

J. Tyler Franklin

Councilwoman Jessica Green questions Lt. Shannon Lauder during a committee hearing on Feb. 26.

LMPD Adds Training But Disputes Story’s Findings

Body camera footage from that night shows an officer ask Sainato repeatedly how much she had to drink, put his hands on her arms and, later, tell other officers that they “get these a lot in the hotels” — people drink too much, take someone back to their rooms and then say they got raped.

Green asked Lauder how the department will do better.

What I will say is that our words matter,” Lauder said. “We know when we are communicating with victims of sexual assault and victims of trauma, we have to remember that our words matter. And I think that in this instance, in particular, we can do better.”

Lauder said her sex crimes detectives have extensive training, but patrol officers often don’t. The LMPD is working with the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville on new, “groundbreaking” training focused on improving patrol officers’ response to sexual assault and trauma victims. That includes video training that will launch in April, and in-service training that will roll out in 2021, she said. 

Lauder said the changes are a positive that resulted from KyCIR’s story, but she called the reporting “disingenuous,” noting that the stories never mentioned that LMPD was closing cases with the “best of intentions” to be victim-centered. 

Lauder said she was excited to explain her department’s statistics further to the committee, because LMPD’s arrest rate on sex crimes is actually much higher than KyCIR reported.

“The statistics were manipulated and rattled off in a manner that gave a false perspective on what’s really going on in Louisville,” she said.

(Listen to Dig, our investigative podcast, at kydig.org or your favorite podcast app)

KyCIR examined records for 194 rape or sodomy cases reported in 2017 and found a 15% arrest rate. Those numbers were based on data obtained from LMPD through an open records request as well as LMPD case files and court records. 

Lauder told the committee LMPD actually had an arrest rate of 19% in 2017. She based that percentage on a much smaller number of sex crime cases that she said excluded crimes against children. 

While KyCIR’s review found four cases from 2017 ended with a rape conviction, Lauder said that they obtained 12 “felony convictions.” She did not say how many of those were for rape.  

‘Our community is better than this’

Lauder conceded that KyCIR accurately portrayed the percentage of rape cases that were cleared by exception after a prosecutor declined it, and that the city’s use of that type of clearance was higher than in other similarly-sized cities. But she said the story failed to acknowledge that “we were doing that with the best of intentions,” Lauder said. 

“It is hurtful to me, and it is hurtful to my detectives, to be accused of not caring about victims and not doing everything they can to see convictions,” Lauder said.

She said LMPD has since added a new category, “cleared by exception, victim requests case closure,” to more accurately reflect the impetus for the case clearance. Lauder did not address whether that would affect how often they close those cases without arrests.

According to Lauder, Louisville is actually exceeding the national standard for conviction rates in felony sex crimes, which she said was about 2 percent. 

Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith said beating the national standard isn’t good enough. 

“We not only need to beat the national standard, we need to create an entire new standard,” she said. “Our community is better than this. LMPD can do better than this.”

After the hearing, Green, the committee chairwoman, said the changes announced by LMPD will help to start changing the mindset of officers and prosecutors. But she disagreed with Lauder’s statement that their approach was victim-centered.

“I don’t think that numbers lie. I think there was some attempt to kind of deflect what the numbers say or to blame the media for some of the messaging that’s gone out,” Green said. “But the numbers are real. I appreciate LMPD’s perspective but we don’t ever want to discount the voice of victims.”

J. Tyler Franklin

Jen Sainato, second from left in the front row, listen as Lt. Shannon Lauder testifies about LMPD’s handling of rape cases.

Jen Sainato was in the audience at the hearing. She and her niece drove from Valparaiso, Indiana to hear what Lauder had to say about her case. 

Lauder said she couldn’t say much, since Sainato’s case has been reopened. But she said a “miscommunication” in the way that case was closed has prompted a change in policy.

Police records show the case was cleared by exception because Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Kristi Gray declined it, but Gray told Sainato she never declined her case.

Lauder told the committee that Gray had said she would decline the case if “one more lab test” didn’t yield any new information. When the test came back negative, the detective cleared the case in “good faith upon this verbal agreement.” She said going forward, detectives will require prosecutors to put that in writing to avoid miscommunication.

Green said she invited a representative from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to attend Wednesday’s hearing, but no one did. 

Sainato said Lauder’s changes don’t go far enough. 

I think there needs to be more focus on not explaining paperwork and statistics, but looking at victims and their cases, and truly wanting to arrest someone and solve it,” Sainato said. 

Sainato said she’s used to being disappointed by LMPD. But one good thing did come out of the hearing: she met other survivors, with similar stories, who came to watch the testimony too. 

I met a victim today and right away we hugged and just cried in each other’s arms,” she said. “We both have identical stories. And it is not a coincidence.”

Amina Elahi and Jacob Ryan contributed to this report. Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at (502) 814.6544 or eklibanoff@kycir.org.

The post LMPD Announces Training, Procedure Changes In Wake Of KyCIR Investigation appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Louisville Changes Public Nuisance Enforcement After KyCIR Investigation Tuesday, Feb 25 2020 

Alexandra Kanik

City officials have changed the way they enforce public nuisance laws in the wake of a KyCIR investigation. One key change: they are no longer deeming properties a public nuisance after just one police visit.

Louisville officials say they will use discretion in issuing public nuisance violations and stop urging landlords to evict tenants in an effort to be less hostile and avoid punishing victims of crimes.

The changes come in response to a recent investigation by KyCIR that found police and code enforcement officers have labeled the homes of victims and offenders alike as nuisances — sometimes before they qualified as a nuisance under the city’s ordinance.

Property owners and their tenants face steep fines if they’re considered a public nuisance, and some landlords evicted tenants in response to nuisance violation letters from the city.

But now, city authorities will no longer notify homeowners that they are a nuisance after just one police incident, and they will stop encouraging property owners to evict tenants from nuisance properties. Code enforcement officers will also investigate further before starting a nuisance case after instances involving violent crime to evaluate the potential impact on victims.

“The story raised some good points,” said Thomas Nord, a spokesman for the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations. “There is now a heightened awareness of the situation.”

Alexandra Kanik

The new letter is merely a notice, while previously, owners received letters informing them a violation has occurred.

But more substantial changes, which would require action from the Louisville Metro Council, seem unlikely at least for now. Council members expanded the city’s public nuisance ordinance in recent years to include a broad list of qualifying crimes that include drug offenses, assaults and theft. Though council members have expressed concern about how the ordinance is enforced, none have held hearings or proposed changes.

KyCIR examined nearly three hundred nuisance case files spanning three years and found dozens stemmed from domestic violence or other violent crime. In some cases, grieving families were issued a nuisance violation notice days after the overdose death or murder of a loved one.

Robert Kirchdorfer, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations, said in December that he was unaware crime victims were being targeted or affected by nuisance enforcement. He sought changes to the enforcement process days after being interviewed by a KyCIR reporter, according to emails obtained through an open records request.

Last week, city attorneys finalized a revised notice letter that will be sent to owners of properties deemed a public nuisance. These letters are the first alert that a property is the subject of a nuisance case, and they can serve as the jumping-off point for a whirlwind of ramifications and stress for owners and tenants.

The new letters are drastically different than the letters that have been issued for the past three years. Most notably, the letters no longer indicate a property is a public nuisance after just one police-related incident; the ordinance requires at least two.

The revised letters make clear the property isn’t a nuisance yet, and won’t be unless another police-related incident occurs.

Though codes officials claimed in earlier interviews that the letters were only a warning, that wasn’t clear to property owners who were informed their only defense to the violation was eviction and they faced criminal fines up to $1,000 a day.

Alexandra Kanik

The old letters encouraged landlords to evict tenants as a defense to the violation, and a way to avoid fines. The new letter won’t mention eviction.

There is no longer any mention of eviction or threat of $1,000 fines.

The amended letters are “less hostile,” said Nord, the spokesman. He said it’s not up to city officials to inform landlords about their eviction options.

To be sure, property owners are still subject to fines, and eviction is still a defense under the ordinance. Changing that would require action from the Louisville Metro Council.

The new letters urge owners to take necessary action to prevent properties from becoming or remaining a nuisance, offering a gentle reminder that their property is an “important investment for you and the community at large.”

“That was our intention with the [original letter],” Kirchdorfer said in an interview last week. “We’re always trying to improve the process to make things more clear to folks.”

Kirchdorfer said he wants to avoid saddling crime victims with the penalties that come with a public nuisance violation, but there’s no quick-fix to address the complexities that come with enforcing a broad law like the nuisance ordinance.

“We definitely don’t want to go in there and escalate a situation,” he said. “We’re going to look at the big picture… we’re never trying to encourage eviction.”

Code officials will review each case individually and use more discretion from now on when they get a request from police to open a public nuisance case, Kirchdorfer said.

The Louisville Metro Police Department has made no changes related to the public nuisance enforcement, according to Jessie Halladay, department spokesperson.

She said the agency is working to ensure officers are aware of the changes implemented by the Department of Codes and Regulations.

“We continue to work with codes as we refine the process of how we work together,” she said in an emailed statement. “We are always open to changes that improve the process.”

Crimes that involve domestic violence still qualify a property as a public nuisance, and Kirchdorfer would not say if he supports a blanket exemption for domestic violence cases.

Council members were incensed to hear victims were being labeled a nuisance, but so far, they’ve taken no action to change the ordinance.

Councilwoman Jessica Green said in December that the manner of how the nuisance law was being applied was “a travesty” and “utterly sickening.”

Green, chair of the council’s public safety committee, said that the ordinance was intended to help bust up drug dens and troublesome businesses not residential properties.

Green did not respond to multiple requests for another interview.

Louisville Metro Council president David James said he assumed the intent of the ordinance was clear: crack down on problematic businesses and drug houses. He said the issues uncovered by KyCIR surrounding public nuisance enforcement warrant a full review of the ordinance.

“We need to look at the whole thing and make sure we don’t have any unintended consequences with this ordinance,” he said. “I think we can do better.”

It’s not clear when the council will review the ordinance, however. James said that’s up to Green.

Contact Jacob Ryan at (502) 814.6559 or jryan@kycir.org.

The post Louisville Changes Public Nuisance Enforcement After KyCIR Investigation appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

LMPD To Testify About Rape Investigations In Wake Of KyCIR Report Friday, Feb 21 2020 

J. Tyler Franklin

Lt. Shannon Lauder speaks with KyCIR reporter Eleanor Klibanoff in November 2019.

Listen to the brand-new episode of Dig in the player above.

A representative from the Louisville Metro Police Department will testify before city lawmakers Wednesday about the agency’s process for reviewing and closing rape investigations. 

The Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee has called Lt. Shannon Lauder to answer questions in the wake of KyCIR’s “Prosecution Declined” investigation, which found nearly half of all rape cases reported to LMPD are cleared by “exception,” rather than by arrest. 

In most of those cases, police said an arrest was not possible because the prosecutor declined the case before an arrest was made. KyCIR found that the police were often screening cases with the prosecutor before a thorough investigation had been conducted

Lauder runs the special victims unit, which includes sex crimes investigations. The testimony will come as Louisville’s sex crimes prosecutor is raising new questions about a case featured in KyCIR’s reporting.

Louisville Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, asked Lauder to testify in front of the eight-person committee. She also asked the Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney’s office to send a representative, but has not confirmed whether any prosecutors will attend. 

Councilwoman Jessica Green

Green, a former domestic violence prosecutor with the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, said police and prosecutors are sending the wrong message to victims.

“It’s essentially a message of … don’t report, because if you do, and start the process, you’re going to be disappointed,” Green said. “You’re going to be let down, and you’re never going to have your day in court.”

{Listen to Dig, KyCIR’s new investigative podcast}

KyCIR’s investigation found that fewer people report rapes per capita in Louisville than in any of its peer cities. The city’s arrest rate in rape cases in 2017 was only 15 percent, far below the national average. And the cases that did end in an arrest were almost all pled down to a lesser charge. 

Of 194 reported rapes in 2017, four people were convicted of rape, KyCIR’s investigation found. 

The committee meeting is Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, 601 W Jefferson Street. It is open to the public. 

In Cleared Case, Prosecutor Points Back at Police As Cause

J. Tyler Franklin

Jen Sainato, photographed in Louisville in October.

Jen Sainato plans to drive down from Valparaiso, Indiana, to attend that meeting.

“There needs to be some checks and balances,” she said. “And it seems like that’s what’s happening now.”

Sainato’s case was highlighted in the Prosecution Declined investigation and KyCIR’s podcast, Dig. In January 2018, she told LMPD officers she was raped by a man she’d met at a hotel bar. 

Six officers responded that night, crowding into her hotel room. One asked her repeatedly how much she’d had to drink and later told other officers that they “get these a lot in the hotels” — people drink too much, take someone back to their rooms and then say they got raped.

More than two years later, no arrests have been made. 

Portion of status form from Sainato’s case (click to enlarge)

Instead, LMPD cleared the case by exception last year, using the designation “prosecution declined.” According to the LMPD file, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Kristi Gray had reviewed the case and declined to prosecute the suspect, citing a lack of evidence.

During our reporting, LMPD reopened Sainato’s case after she provided additional medical records documenting injuries she says she sustained during the rape. Last Sainato heard, the police were reviewing the medical records and planned to bring the case back to the prosecutor for another review. 

But as Sainato continued to press for answers, the prosecutor made a startling allegation.

In a phone call with Sainato, a recording of which KyCIR has reviewed, Gray said she never declined to prosecute the case in the first place. 

Gray declined an interview request with KyCIR, but confirmed in an email exchange that she had reviewed the case on two occasions. Both times, she said, she told the police she needed more information to decide how to proceed. 

Gray told KyCIR the last time she reviewed the case was in November 2018, when she told Sgt. Tim Stokes and Detective Lindsey Lynch that she wanted to wait until the DNA tests were complete to screen the case. 

“There was additional information needed before we could decide whether we could proceed with any prosecution,” she wrote. “It was not a decision to decline prosecution.”

But in emails, documents and interviews, LMPD officials tell a different story. 

After the DNA tests came back in May 2019, Stokes emailed Sainato’s attorney. He wrote, “based on this DNA evidence and the investigation, the case was presented to the Commonwealth Attorney for review. The case was thoroughly screened and investigated. At this time, the Commonwealth has declined prosecution.”

He reiterated that in an October 2019 email to Sainato, who had reached out after KyCIR informed her that her case had been cleared by exception. He wrote that the investigation had been “very detailed, broad in scope, and extremely thorough.” He said the entire case file had been presented to the prosecutors after the investigation concluded and, “at this time, prosecution has been declined.”

In an email a few days later, Stokes was even more specific: “In this matter, all available information was presented to the prosecutor.  Victim interviews, scene information, lab reports, surveillance video, body camera video, medical records, witness interviews, and suspect interviews, et al have been included in the file.”

Sainato’s LMPD file also contains a case status form, signed by Lynch, that says Gray screened and declined the case. It is dated October 15, 2019, the same day LMPD responded to KyCIR’s request to review the case file. 

Signature and date on Sainato’s case form

Lynch hung up on a reporter who called her desk phone. An LMPD spokesperson refused to answer questions about when and whether the case was declined, instead directing all questions to Gray’s office.

“I am outraged,” said Sainato. “It just makes you wonder, did [Lynch] never believe me? Or does she just need to get a different job?”

Closed Cases A Concern For Some City Officials

This is just one of the developments that council members will be able to ask Lauder about next Wednesday. 

Several have expressed concerns about KyCIR’s findings. 

“I would be interested in knowing the reason for all of those…closed cases,” said Councilwoman Barbara Sexton-Smith, a Democrat who represents the downtown district, including the Marriott where Sainato reported a rape. “It appears that victims in Louisville are tending not to receive the justice that is very much deserved.” 

Markus Winkler, the chair of the Democratic Caucus, said he would reserve judgment until he learned more from the police. But he was concerned by many of the numbers cited in the story. 

“I’m not naive enough to think that instances of sex crimes in Jefferson County are disporportionately lower than they would be in other areas,” said Winkler. “Just because it might be difficult to prove doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prosecute these cases.” 

J. Tyler Franklin

Council President David James

Council president David James, a frequent critic of police chief Steve Conrad, agreed with his colleagues. But in this case, he said the blame goes higher than the police or the prosecutors. 

“I think that you all should put some pressure on the mayor,” said James, a former police officer. “He’s the one that hires the police chief. Does he think this is okay?”

Mayor Greg Fischer hired Conrad in 2012 and has stood by the embattled police chief through several no confidence votes and a child sex abuse scandal that put two officers in federal prison.

Laura Ellis / WFPL

Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad with Mayor Greg Fischer at a news conference in September 2016.

In a statement issued a few days after the story ran, Fischer said he was “confident LMPD places a priority on getting justice for [rape] victims” as exemplified by “daily officer interactions with victims.” He applauded the department’s pursuit of grant funding for domestic violence and human trafficking initiatives. 

Fischer’s office did not respond to follow-up questions.

Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at (502) 814.6544 or eklibanoff@kycir.org.

The post LMPD To Testify About Rape Investigations In Wake Of KyCIR Report appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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