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Eagle editorial: Bigger step needed on mental health

  • Published Friday, June 13, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Gov. Sam Brownback has been casting a needed spotlight on mental health care in Kansas and redirecting some funding to help better coordinate this care. Good for him.

But Brownback is still resisting the biggest and most cost-effective way to help thousands of Kansans battling mental illnesses – expanding Medicaid. Shame on him.

Brownback toured the mental health pod at the Sedgwick County Jail last week before holding a news conference detailing his plans to improve mental health treatment in Kansas. He is shifting about $9.5 million in state funds to help integrate and coordinate such services in the state’s law enforcement, corrections and family welfare agencies.

“Two-thirds of our prison population in the state of Kansas either has a substance abuse issue, a mental health issue or both,” Brownback said.

That’s why it is imperative to provide them with care while in prison and to provide more mental health care in communities – to help keep people out of prison.

Better coordination of services is needed, and the additional funding is welcome – though it’s a concern that most of it is being transferred from federal welfare funds for needy families. But as mental health advocates noted, a bigger step is needed.

“There is a whole segment of the population that simply will not have access to quality mental health services without some kind of insurance coverage,” Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas, told the Lawrence-Journal World.

And the ready and available way to provide many of them with insurance, Cagan noted, is by allowing a federal expansion of Medicaid – which the federal government fully pays for the first three years and nearly fully covers after that.

NAMI estimated last year that more than 21,000 mentally ill and uninsured Kansans would be eligible for Medicaid if the expansion were allowed. Other estimates are even higher.

In addition to helping these Kansans, expanding Medicaid would help community mental health centers, which are struggling financially. It also could help lower some state costs, because Medicaid would pay for some care now being underwritten by the state.

There is also a high cost in not expanding Medicaid. In Kansas, untreated mental illness is associated with an estimated 128 suicides, 21,000 incarcerations and 29,000 unemployed adults per year, costing the private sector nearly $429 million, according to the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.

It’s great that Brownback wants to improve the mental health care system. But allowing Kansans to receive mental health care through Medicaid would really change lives.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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