State hospital needs long-term solution

Osawatomie State Hospital is limiting admissions in order to reduce overcrowding.
Osawatomie State Hospital is limiting admissions in order to reduce overcrowding.

The state likely had no choice but to limit admissions at Osawatomie State Hospital. But this drastic move to ease overcrowding could be harmful and dangerous, and the state needs to implement a long-term solution as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, that solution likely could require more money at a time when the state is scrambling to cut costs.

The state psychiatric hospital near Kansas City has struggled with overcrowding for many years. Federal regulators finally intervened this fall and ordered the hospital to fix the overcrowding or lose its Medicare and Medicaid funding, which is about a fifth of its budget.

As as result, when the hospital is nearing its capacity, it is no longer admitting patients who’ve agreed to a voluntary commitment. It is also using an “intensive triage system” with patients who are involuntarily committed, with admission dependent on the severity of their diagnosis and consultation with hospital staff.

The policy has already affected Wichita. During one weekend earlier this month, Osawatomie turned away eight patients from Sedgwick County who would have been involuntary admissions.

Community mental health centers are expected to find alternative sources of care for patients no longer accepted at Osawatomie. The problem is that there often aren’t other options.

“So many local inpatient units have closed across the state,” said Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare, Sedgwick County’s mental health agency. “You have less local beds for people to go to.”

Cook noted that when she came here in 1993, Sedgwick County had almost 300 local inpatient beds. Now there are only 80 beds for psychiatric patients at Via Christi Behavioral Health Center and 20 beds for elderly mental health patients at Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph.

Without proper care, some of these patients could end up in emergency rooms and county jails. They could be a danger to themselves or others.

To its credit, the Brownback administration has been working to reform and improve mental health services. It transferred an additional $9.5 million in funding for these services earlier this year and has started implementing reforms recommended by a task force that Brownback created in 2013.

But the state is now under great pressure to cut costs. Last week Brownback proposed $280 million in fund transfers and agency cuts for this fiscal year. Those cuts include delaying a $5.4 million expansion planned at Larned State Hospital. Next fiscal year’s budget problems look much worse.

But Kansans with severe mental health issues don’t have time to wait for the state’s budget to stabilize.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee