The House Social Services Committee did something rare in a time of tight Kansas budgets: It invited a state agency to come back and ask for more money to fix a problem.
Tim Keck, interim secretary for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, briefed the committee Tuesday afternoon on the state hospitals at Larned and Osawatomie. Much of the discussion focused on staffing challenges at both hospitals, which treat people with mental health issues who have been involuntarily committed because they are believed to be a danger to themselves or others.
About 38 percent of nursing positions are vacant at Larned and about 33 percent are vacant at Osawatomie, Keck said. He didn’t have statistics available about vacancies in other direct care positions, such as mental health technicians.
Keck said KDADS is considering a variety of moves, including offering day care for children of employees and free meals to employees who have to work overtime, or allowing staff to work overtime “off-discipline.” For example, a member of the security staff could work overtime in a medical position that doesn’t require a license, he said.
Rep. Will Carpenter, a Republican from El Dorado, said he wanted to hear a more aggressive plan to end excessive use of overtime at the state hospitals.
Keck said that wasn’t likely until KDADS solved issues of insufficient staffing to cover shifts. The short-term plan is to reduce vacancies to 25 percent by hiring 89 people at Larned and 75 at Osawatomie, he said.
“We need to solve the current problem we have now before we approach the overtime situation,” he said.
Hiring has proven difficult due to funding, the hospitals’ remote locations, attitudes about the hospitals and a healing job market, Keck said. In a two-month period, the hospitals hired 21 people, but 28 employees left, he said.
“The reason we lost them is we had somebody fall asleep during orientation or they just stopped showing up,” he said. “As the number of people looking for a job goes down, it gets tougher.”
Carpenter pressed Keck on whether the state system of paying certain wages to classified employees was tying the department’s hands, and if unclassifying those positions would allow KDADS to offer higher salaries. Mental health technicians have a starting wage of $13.61 per hour.
“It seems to me if you offered 50 grand a year, you could get staffing out at Larned,” he said.
Keck said he couldn’t rule out asking for more money to hire direct care staff at the hospitals, but he wants to investigate the situation further before making a pitch to the Legislature.
“When I ask for help, I want to make sure we do it the right way,” he said.