Politics & Government

Brownback: Society needs to handle mental health issues as treatable illness

Gov. Sam Brownback, left, thanks the crowd for their advocacy on mental health issues in Topeka.
Gov. Sam Brownback, left, thanks the crowd for their advocacy on mental health issues in Topeka. The Wichita Eagle

In a speech to mental health advocates Thursday, Gov. Sam Brownback said that too much of the state’s mental health treatment takes place in the prison system and that Kansas needs to do a better job treating people before they enter the system.

Brownback addressed the Kansas Mental Health Coalition at the Maner Conference Center in Topeka before the group converged on the Capitol to meet with legislators to lobby on mental health issues.

“As a society we need to start addressing and treating mental illness as just that, an illness that is treatable,” Brownback told the crowd of about 300 people.

Brownback touted the Governor’s Mental Health Task Force, which will be issuing recommendations on how to better integrate mental health services between government agencies in coming weeks. He also touted the Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, which will open in April.

Brownback said that the facility could serve as a model on how to offer early and emergency intervention for people with mental health problems.

He highlighted the struggle many veterans have with post-traumatic stress disorder. After his speech Jim Brann, an Overland Park resident, greeted the governor to thank him for his speech.

Brann said his son served two tours in Iraq and has struggled with mental health problems ever since. These struggles have brought him into trouble with the law. Brann told the governor his son is currently detained in Sedgwick County Jail.

“Thank you for not abandoning these men and women,” Brann said to the governor.

But George Henry, a peer support specialist who works at Pawnee Mental Health Services in Concordia, was less impressed with the governor’s speech.

“A little light on details,” Henry said. “I want to know what he’s going to do about it.”

The state has cut about $15 million from the budget for community mental health centers since 2008, according to the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.

Shawn Sullivan, Secretary for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, was quick to point out that these cuts occurred before Brownback took office. But the Kansas Mental Health Coalition would like the governor and Legislature to restore this funding.

Brownback said it was possible that more funds for mental health services could be available in the future, especially if the services get better integrated between agencies.

“I think there will be. And I think it’s important that we get it integrated, the services. That’s what this task force is about to really get a lot better integration of your services: Defense, Veterans, Corrections, Police,” Brownback said. “A lot of your mental health is being done by Corrections. Well, okay, this isn’t the place to do it. Or if you are going to that there, you’ve got to have it integrated better.”

Kansas spends $132 per capita each year on mental health, according to an e-mail from the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which puts it 20th among states.

As he was exiting the event, the governor was confronted by Finn Bullers, a healthcare activist from Prairie Village who suffers from muscular dystrophy and has been a frequent critic of KanCare after he received a letter from the state that his service hours would be cut.

Sullivan said the service hours Bullers receives have not been changed since his transition to KanCare.

Bullers questioned the governor about his resistance to expanding Medicaid, which he argued could help mental health treatment.

The Kansas Mental Health Coalition notes that 65,000 people receiving services from Community Mental Health Centers are not eligible for Medicaid.

Brownback said that expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act to cover people who are impoverished but lack physical or mental disabilities would hurt the state’s ability to accommodate people currently on the waiting lists for service waivers from the department of aging for physical or developmental disabilities.

“It’s going to take away money from the people that we need to get off the waiting list that are qualified because they have mental or physical issues because we’re going to have to pay 10 percent in a year.”

Brownback told Bullers that if the federal money would help people currently on the waiting list then he would “take it in a heartbeat.”

But Bullers was not entirely satisfied with Brownback’s explanation.

“He makes a great speech, and he says the right things to get the applause in the room, but when the rubber meets the road the services aren’t there,” Bullers said.

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