Politics & Government

Official: Funding boost for Kansas mental hospitals in the works

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Gov. Sam Brownback will push for another boost in funding for the state’s two mental hospitals and could propose pay raises of up to 10 percent for some of their workers, a top social services official said.

Legislators from both parties said they welcomed the news that the Republican governor is working on proposals to help the Larned and Osawatomie hospitals fill staff vacancies. But they remained wary of the administration’s interest in exploring whether the Osawatomie hospital, which serves Sedgwick County, among others, should be run by a private company.

The federal government in December decertified the Osawatomie hospital in eastern Kansas, costing the state up to $1 million a month in federal funds. It and the Larned hospital in western Kansas had more than 350 open positions at the end of January, a combined vacancy rate of about 38 percent.

Tim Keck, interim secretary of the Department for Aging and Disability Services, said the agency is working aggressively to fill vacancies and make the program changes necessary to regain federal certification later this year. Keck said this week that the governor and his budget staff expect to have a proposal for additional funding within a few weeks.

“They’ve made a commitment to us that we'll get what we need,” Keck said.

Employee turnover

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said he’s pleased the administration is focusing on “the cornerstone” of lessening turnover among hospital workers. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, another Louisburg Republican, said it’s wonderful to promise additional funds, but she wants more details.

“It’s almost a given they have to do that,” added Rep. Jerry Henry of Atchison, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The Legislature this week approved adding $3 million to the hospitals’ budgets. Keck said that’s not enough and that Brownback’s administration is working on a plan to boost funding more.

Brownback is considering pay raises for nurses and mental health technicians, Keck said. The administration estimates that a 10 percent increase at both hospitals would cost $4.2 million a year.

The federal government’s action against the Osawatomie hospital came after a critical survey in November found a systemic failure to protect suicidal patients, adequately supervise care and perform required safety checks. The survey noted that an employee reported being raped in October by a patient.

Efforts made

Those problems and staffing issues at both hospitals prompted Reps. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, and Jim Ward, D-Wichita, to suggest during a House committee hearing this week that Brownback’s administration had mismanaged the hospitals to justify turning over part or all of their operations to private companies.

Keck and other KDADS officials said the department’s efforts to provide adequate staffing and improve operations show the allegation is unfounded.

“It is just very unfair to all of the efforts that have been made,” Keck said.

For example, the department said it has spent more than $2 million since the start of 2015 on contract labor for Osawatomie and has hired 34 employees there since the start of the year. Its officials said the department also has been overhauling policies and treatment programs to improve patient care at Osawatomie.

Keck told legislators this week that the department is not considering privatization as an option for Larned. He said the department wants to keep the option open for Osawatomie but would first form a study group, involve legislators and take months to even request proposals from interested companies.

Baumgardner said lawmakers need to see a plan showing how such a move would improve care and perhaps decrease costs to be comfortable with the idea.

“We’ve not seen any of that,” she said.