KHI News Service

House mental health caucus holds first meeting

Bi-partisan group seeks to preserve funding for community MH programs

By Mike Shields | February 09, 2011

Eight Kansas House members, Republicans and Democrats, showed up today for the first meeting of a new caucus the goal of which is to preserve funding for mental health services.

Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican and a co-founder of the group, said she ultimately hopes a couple dozen House members will attend the meetings. But she noted Wednesday that the eight who came represented a good cross-section of the state, including some of its most populous districts.

The caucus members were presented two overviews of the state's mental health spending with a focus on the programs run by 26 locally managed community mental health centers.

Build more prisons?

The centers face a $15 million reduction in state grants and other aid, if the Legislature fully endorses Gov. Sam Brownback's budget plan for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Mike Hammond, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas gave the first presentation. His organization also provided the caucus members boxed lunches since the meeting was over the noon hour.

Mike Hammond

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He told the lawmakers that cutting aid to the community centers would end up costing the state more in the long run. The community centers spend between $10 and $22 a day on their patients, versus the $458 daily cost for a person in a state mental hospital. Keeping a mentally ill person in jail, where increasing numbers are showing up, costs about $120 a day, he said.

"You'll have to build more state hospitals at the end of the day," Hammond said, if cuts in state aid for community mental health continue.

"And we'll have to build more prisons," Colloton quickly added.

Medicaid patients increasing

Hammond said state aid and grants to the centers peaked at about $50 million in fiscal 2005 and by this year had dropped to $28.4 million. The governor's plan would take that down to $13.3 million.

The number of Medicaid-eligible patients coming the centers has been growing, which has increased Medicaid reimbursements for the care providers but not enough to keep pace with demands. He said the centers' Medicaid patients tend to be sicker and costlier to treat.

Rep. Jim Kelly was among the House members who attended the first mental health caucus meeting. The group was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans who share a common concern about mental health services.

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In response to the recent aid reductions, he said some centers have trimmed their hours of operations, frozen wages and otherwise managed to stay in business by putting, "the cuts on the backs of the employees."

Some centers no longer accept all-comers, he said, which was something the Legislature said it expected of the centers when reforms in the 1990s closed a state mental hospital in Topeka in favor of community-based services.

Alan Conroy, director of the Legislature's research arm, told the legislators that the governor's proposed budget would reduce current state funding for the community centers from $28.4 million to $13.3 million.

Colloton, who organized the mental health caucus in tandem with Rep. Louis Ruiz, a Kansas City Democrat, urged Hammond to provide the group with numbers that will allow them to convince fellow House members that spending on mental health services can produce offsetting savings. The House has new "pay-go" rules that prohibit amendments to spending bills unless the proposals include offsetting cuts or savings in other programs.

"We have to absolutely show we can take that money (for mental health programs) from another part of the budget," she said.

Teen suicide a concern

Among the eight lawmakers at the Wednesday meeting was Rep. TerriLois Gregory, a Baldwin City Republican who is in her first term. Gregory defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Tony Brown, part of an electoral sweep that gave the GOP its biggest House majority in 60 years.

Rep. TerriLois Gregory said she is concerned about the teen suicide rate in Douglas County.

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She was the first person elected chair of a House freshmen group that members call the "150 caucus," naming themselves for the state's sesquicentennial, which was celebrated the same month they took office.

Like many of her freshmen counterparts, Gregory said she comes to the Legislature intent on major spending cuts and remaking the tax code in ways that will encourage businesses and the economy to flourish.

She said voters sent her and many of her freshmen colleagues to the Legislature with the clear message that government must focus on "core services."

Gregory said she attended the mental health caucus meeting because she considered mental health services a "core" function of government.

"In my opinion, yes, it is," she said. "We had 22 teen suicides in Douglas County last year."

Gregory said she has been working with members of the Kansas Congressional delegation to help secure a federal grant aimed at preventing suicide for Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence.

The grant money is available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA). It would provide the counseling center up to $480,000 a year for three years.

House members who attended the caucus meeting were Republicans: Colloton, Gregory, Dennis Hedke of Wichita, and Jim Kelly of Independence.

The Democrats were: Ruiz, Doug Gatewood of Columbus, Barbara Ballard of Lawrence and Sydney Carlin of Manhattan. Ballard, Carlin and Gatewood are members of the House Appropriations Committee.