State hospitals need scrutiny, resources

State mental hospitals and the sexual predator treatment program need more scrutiny and resources.
State mental hospitals and the sexual predator treatment program need more scrutiny and resources.

While the spotlight is on legislators’ quest to balance revenues and expenditures overall, some recesses of the state budget need much more attention and money – the state mental hospitals and the sexual predator treatment program.

The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services has offered its assurances that any problems are being dealt with and patients properly cared for; its new 30-member Adult Continuum of Care Committee should provide valuable guidance about the state’s behavioral health system overall.

As it is, there are reasons for concern for lawmakers and other Kansans.

The state hospitals in Osawatomie and Larned have full-time staff vacancy rates of 40 and 35 percent, respectively, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported last weekend, with internal e-mails regarding a short-staffed shift earlier this month showing “a supervisor pleading with workers to volunteer while at the same time mandating some work an extra shift.” And the Osawatomie hospital plans to limit admissions to allow for more than $3 million in renovations stemming from federal citations regarding overcrowding, deficient care and other issues.

“It’s been a long-term travesty in terms of our state hospitals being understaffed as badly as they are. A lot of it has to do with the pay scale of state hospital workers,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, told the Capital-Journal.

Meanwhile, a state audit released in April highlighted the soaring costs of the sexual predator treatment program at Larned State Hospital, which adds 10 to 15 patients a year but has only released three since 1994 (27 have died).

The offenders, committed by the courts to the program after completing their prison sentences, are supposed to work through seven phases of treatment. But Larned superintendent Tom Kinlen estimated 30 to 40 percent of residents have quit participating, according to Associated Press.

Auditors warned that the program’s costs could double by 2025, that its patient numbers could climb from 258 to 500, and that it will max out the capacity at its current facility in the next five years. Gov. Sam Brownback recommended increasing its funding from $13.9 million in 2014 to $20.4 million by 2017.

Like it or not, the state has taken on an obligation to these offenders, and cannot just lock them up and forget about them – or about the employees responsible for their care and treatment. “At some point over the next couple years the Legislature is going to have to make some really hard decisions about how we are going to continue this program,” Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, told AP.

If the state’s bigger fiscal problems are distracting lawmakers from giving the state hospitals and the sexual predator treatment program the scrutiny and resources they demand, that may not be possible for much longer.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman