Health Care

Wichita police chief: Mental illness putting a strain on staff

Gordon Ramsay, chief of police in Wichita, spoke at a press conference Wednesday about Medicaid expansion in Kansas.
Gordon Ramsay, chief of police in Wichita, spoke at a press conference Wednesday about Medicaid expansion in Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay says mental health and substance use issues in Wichita are burdening police officers.

“The police department has really become the first and last provider of social services in our community,” Ramsay said. “And it’s putting a strain on our staff and efforts.”

“All you have to do is drive around the streets of our city to see that mental illness is a problem here, and that’s what our officers are having to deal with.”

For example, he said, some crimes could be prevented if offenders received health insurance coverage to receive medications for mental illnesses after being discharged from jail.

Inmates lose Medicaid coverage during incarceration and have to re-apply upon release.

Ramsay said inmates receive a small supply of their medication before leaving jail, but often run out before being re-approved for Medicaid.

Earlier this year, tens of thousands of people had to wait more than 45 days for approval of their applications because of problems at the state’s clearinghouse in Topeka.

“This is an administrative issue, or a policy issue, that needs to be addressed, because it’s putting stress on our policing efforts and our abilities to provide services to our community,” he said.

Ramsay’s appearance seems to be the first public connection in Kansas between law enforcement and Medicaid expansion. Ramsay didn’t explicitly state support or disapproval of Medicaid expansion during his speech at Wednesday’s meeting.

Instead, he tried to distance himself from the political controversy of expansion.

“I want to leave the legislative issues to other experts and stakeholders, and other elected officials,” he said.

But his appearance was the newest strategy by supporters to link Medicaid expansion with mental health and police issues. The Eagle reported about that change Monday.

Medicaid, called KanCare in Kansas, is the government insurance program for low income or disabled people. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was created with the intent that all states would expand Medicaid programs. A Supreme Court ruling later left that decision to each state.

Prior to Wednesday, the push for expansion had largely focused on economic issues such as job creation, keeping rural hospitals open, economic growth and bringing federal tax dollars back to Kansas.

Djuan Wash, a juvenile justice advocate for Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said Wednesday that he’s setting up meetings with other law enforcement agencies in Overland Park, Wyandotte County, Lawrence and Topeka.

“In many ways, law enforcement are acting as social workers,” Wash said. “A lot of the officer-involved shootings that have taken place are with people that are dealing with mental illness.”

Political opposition

Ramsay spoke at a news conference Wednesday hosted by Via Christi Health at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce with other health-related organizations that support Medicaid expansion.

Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, said 70 percent of the chamber’s 1,800 members support Medicaid expansion.

Kansas is one of 19 states that have not expanded Medicaid. Those states have an insurance coverage gap – a group of people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but make too little to qualify for tax credits and subsidies that help make health insurance affordable.

Nearly one-third of Kansans in the coverage gap experienced mental illness or substance use issues in the past year. The Legislature has not expanded Medicaid, largely because of political opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the belief it would cost the state too much money.

Mental health issues

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett and Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter have not taken a position about whether the state should expand Medicaid, but both are concerned about the stress mental illness puts on courts, the jail and taxpayers.

“The mental health system impacts significantly the criminal justice system,” Bennett said. “It’s as simple as that.”

And without adequate funding for mental health treatment, he said, costs rise.

“It costs more to put someone in the penitentiary than to offer mental health treatment in the community,” he said.

Easter said about one in three Sedgwick County jail inmates have mental health issues. That statistic, he said, has remained consistent for at least the past four years.

The jail created a mental health unit in 2014, but that unit only houses 49 people out of the jail’s daily population of about 1,400.

“We’re basically a mental health hospital inside the jail,” Easter said. “That’s not what we’re here for. There needs to be a change.”

Treatment before incarceration, he said, could prevent crimes, and thus prevent people from becoming victims.

“And that’s a relief on taxpayers, because they’re not paying for them in jail,” he said.

Easter said inmates also face waiting lists at state hospitals for mental health evaluations that determine whether a person is capable of standing trial.

The Sedgwick County jail, he said, has 12 inmates waiting for that determination. One of those people has been waiting more than four months, he said. Nothing can go forward with those cases until that evaluation.

Hospitals, he said, also have become the “defacto mental health facilities.”

He said law enforcement have increasingly dealt with calls and arrests of people with mental health issues who assaulted hospital staff.

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn