Advocates: Mental health system close to collapse

0 | Agencies, SRS, Legislature, Mental Health

— The state’s mental health system is falling apart, advocates for the mentally ill said Thursday.

“We’re in contact with law enforcement officials three times a day, now.” said Johnson County Mental Health Center Executive Director Davie Wiebe. “That’s double what we were seeing just three or four years ago. It’s a very noticeable increase in their needing us or us needing them.”

Testifying before the interim Legislative Budget Committee, Wiebe said his agency averaged 308 intakes a month in 2008; 600 in 2009.

“Already, in 2010, we’re averaging 657 new intakes per month,” he said, pinning much of the increase on the state’s troubled economy.

“Our intake staff tells me they’re getting 50 to 60 calls a week from individuals who are calling due to some form of economic stress - whether it be job loss, home foreclosure or loss of insurance,” Wiebe said.

At the same time, he said, the mental health center has sustained deep cuts in state spending.

“Our share of the reductions comes to about $1.7 million,” he said.

Walt Hill, executive director at High Plains Mental Health Center in Hays, said cuts in state support have caused to the center to lose almost $40,000 a month.

“The impact of these cuts is that while we don’t have waiting lists, it’s taking twice as long for people to be seen for medication evaluation, and then, generally, two months for an appointment,” Hill said.

The system, he said, is now so strained that “tragedies” are becoming unavoidable.

Committee members spent much of the hearing reviewing a Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services decision earlier this summer to limit admissions to the state’s three hospitals for the mentally ill after each facility exceeded its licensed capacity.

“The state hospitals are being overwhelmed,” said Dr. Roy Menninger, chairman of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.

Menninger noted that civil admissions to the hospitals have increased from 2,469 in 2002 to almost 4,000 in 2009. “That’s a 60 percent increase in a span of seven years,” he said.

Advocates praised SRS for contracting with two private psychiatric units – Via Christi Health Behavioral Health Center, Wichita, and Prairie View, Newton – to relieve some of the pressure on Osawatomie State Hospital.

A Legislative Research Department report noted that SRS had agreed to pay the Via Christi center $765 a day for each patient it diverted from the state hospital.

The state hospitals, according to the report, provide similar services for $337 to $508 a day.

SRS Secretary Don Jordan assured the committee that the state and private hospitals are subject to different cost factors, and that $765 was a reasonable rate.

Lois Clendening, director of behavioral health services at Via Christi, said SRS had referred between 25 and 30 patients to the Wichita hospital’s inpatient unit.

“It added up to about 100 patient days,” Clendening said.

She called the arrangement “extremely positive” for the patients, their families, SRS and Via Christi. “It’s so much better (for the patient) than having to drive 200-plus miles (to Osawatomie),” she said.

Advocates urged committee members to contract with other inpatient facilities in the state and to fund the opening of a now-closed 30-bed unit at Osawatomie State Hospital.

“This is something we’re going to have to discuss,” said Rep. Bill Feuerborn, D-Garnett.

SRS lifted its restriction on voluntary admission to the state hospitals in June.

Jordan said the initial decision was driven by the hospitals having exceeded their licensed capacities, not having many patients who were close to being released, and approaching a weekend, a time when admissions usually spike.

“The other thing that was going on was the acuity level was high,” he said. “There are some people you just can’t put in a room with somebody else. You have to protect the patients’ safety and the staff’s safety.”