Kansas legislators say it’s time to fix mental health bed shortages

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TOPEKA — After months of meetings and complaints from civilians and law enforcement officials, lawmakers say they have clear targets in addressing the state’s severe mental health care shortages.

With a shortage of room in psychiatric facilities across the state, community hospitals and jails have had to shoulder housing and care costs for mentally unstable patients without reimbursement. People deemed a danger to themselves or others are processed by the district attorney’s office and sent to the county jail until a hospital bed is ready. 

In Sedgwick County, the problem is acute. Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeffrey Easter estimated about 30% to 33% of the inmate population had some sort of mental illness, and had to wait months for space to open up at Larned State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility. 

Legislators on the 2022 Special Committee on Mental Health Beds have been urged by local government officials, sheriffs and civilians to fund more services over the last couple of months. 

During a Monday meeting, lawmakers made a list of recommendations, including adding up to 50 additional state institutional beds in the Sedgwick County area in a location that has room for expansion. 

“It’s just the beginning of where we’re going to head because it’s a long process and a difficult process,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, said. 

Legislators said this process should begin within the next calendar year and be funded with $40 million in American Rescue Plan funds that  Sedgwick County previously requested for this project. 

Another recommendation was that the State Finance Council release $15 million appropriated to the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services for a new state hospital so the department could begin its development process. 

Lawmakers also plan to set up a Zoom meeting with mental health certification institutions, including colleges, state agencies and the Kansas Board of Nursing to find ways to bring in more mental health care workers to the state.

“The bigger picture across the state has to do with how do we get our next generation interested in the proper course curriculum, or exposed to serving a mental health community?” Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said. 

McGinn said they should start getting junior-level students interested in the course material, and have these students continue to take related subjects throughout high school. 

McGinn said there was a noticeable shortage of mental health and developmental disability technicians across the state, with 46 vacancies at Osawatomie State Hospital and 60 vacancies at Larned State Hospital. 

Possible solutions include scholarships for health care students, reducing barriers that would prevent retired workers from rejoining the workforce and ways to make health care degrees more attainable for Kansans. 

Another recommendation was to investigate new forms of technology as a tool to provide mental health services, such as apps to reach people struggling with mental health issues. 

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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