The Kansas House and Senate both passed budgets this week that shift money from several sources to shore up an underwater state general fund.
But even in lean budget times, the lawmakers found a few million dollars in the general fund to provide additional money for the state’s two hospitals that serve Kansans with mental illness.
Amy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, said that’s just one indication of the amount of attention legislators are now devoting to the struggling facilities in Osawatomie and Larned.
“We’ve got some legislators that have gone down there and spent time with hospital employees,” Campbell said. “They’ve visited with (state) agency personnel, they’ve gone through past legislation and testimony to try to track where this comes from. It’s much more than just saying, ‘Oh, this looks bad.’”
Campbell said lawmakers’ increased interest in the state’s mental health system has been gratifying — even “inspirational.”
But the problems have been building for some time, and she said additional funds are only a part of the solution.
“While the additional money in the current budget bill is an excellent statement of faith and support to the employees currently working in the state hospitals and the people being treated there, a real solution is still in the future, and it’s going to require much more than a temporary budget patch,” Campbell said.
Late Thursday night the Senate passed, 24-15, a budget in House Bill 2365 that includes an additional $2.4 million earmarked for pay raises and new hires at Osawatomie only.
Leaders of the two chambers’ budget committees will have to hash out those differences in a conference committee unless one chamber decides to adopt the other’s budget.
Larned has struggled to recruit and retain enough qualified staff at current salary levels, but Osawatomie is in the more critical situation.
Osawatomie narrowly avoided federal decertification in 2014 , but federal inspectors decertified the hospital late last year and ended Medicare payments amid security concerns that included a staff member reportedly being raped by a patient.
The state is seeking recertification, but until then Osawatomie will be short federal payments for Medicare patients and uninsured patients.
Osawatomie is undergoing renovations that have reduced 60 beds from its usual capacity of 206. Getting recertified may require more renovations.
The cost would go well beyond the $2 million and $2.4 million offered by the House and Senate, which does not even replace the $3.45 million Gov. Sam Brownback added in an April 2015 budget amendment. That money, which is earmarked for diverting patients who would have been admitted to Osawatomie to non-governmental hospitals during the renovations, will run out when the fiscal year ends June 30.
Campbell said getting the state hospitals back on track will take a “multifaceted” approach that includes bolstering the mental health workforce and continuing the work of a committee set up to find holes in the state’s continuum of care and fill them so Kansans don’t end up in the state hospitals in the first place.
She said she’s encouraged, though, by the attention the state facilities are getting now and the fact that it’s “clearly bipartisan.”
Rep. Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita, and Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican from Parker, rarely have the same policy opinions. But the two of them successfully attached amendments to their respective chambers’ budgets that would require the governor’s office to get legislative approval before privatizing the state hospitals.
Campbell said those amendments were just as important symbolically as the additional money.
“They want to have oversight in what solutions the agency tries to put together for the hospitals,” Campbell said. “It’s good to see legislators take ownership.”
But they’re taking ownership at a time when there are no easy answers.
“The mental health coalition has been testifying to what had been a looming crisis at the state hospitals for nearly a decade,” Campbell said. “And now we’re in it.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso