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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to

Senate mulls committee to study problems at state psychiatric hospitals

Members would consider staffing, safety, patient census

By Meg Wingerter | March 14, 2016

Senate mulls committee to study problems at state psychiatric hospitals
Photo by KHI News Service File Legislators are considering creating a committee to study problems at the state's psychiatric facilities, including Osawatomie State Hospital, seen here.

Kansas’ state psychiatric hospitals have had some high-profile problems in recent months, and some senators want to form a committee to see if they can solve them.

Sen. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican whose district includes Larned State Hospital, said the hospital once was known as “the place to get a job” in Pawnee County, but many new staff members quit before completing their six weeks of on-the-job training.

“Employee morale is a very serious problem, and as a result, patient safety is compromised,” he said.

Holmes is a member of the Senate Public Health and Welfare committee and testified before the committee about Senate Bill 477, which would form an oversight committee, on Monday. He said the goal isn’t to pressure the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, but to assist it.

“I’ve heard, for years, people saying the Legislature has got to do something out there,” he said. Larned “affects half the state, and Osawatomie affects the other half.”

No one from KDADS testified.

The bill would create a 10-member committee to oversee the state psychiatric hospitals at Osawatomie and Larned.

The committee’s duties would include monitoring both hospitals’ patient populations and treatment outcomes, staffing issues and patient and employee safety concerns. It also would tour both hospitals, study KDADS’ relevant policies and make an annual report to the Legislative Coordinating Council.

“Employee morale is a very serious problem, and as a result, patient safety is compromised.”

- Sen. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican

The two hospitals mostly treat people who have been determined to be dangerous to themselves or others because of serious mental illnesses. Both also have forensic units, where people who are mentally ill and involved in criminal proceedings are housed, and Larned has a unit to treat people who were determined to be sexually violent predators.

Both hospitals have struggled with staffing and other issues in recent years. Larned State Hospital’s superintendent recently resigned, and KDADS reports the hospital has struggled to recruit staff in a rural area with low unemployment. Also, its sexually violent predator program is nearing capacity, forcing discussions about whether the state can treat some lower-risk offenders in less restrictive settings, set up a separate facility for some offenders, or find some other solution to protect public safety without incurring substantial costs.

Medicare cut payments to Osawatomie State Hospital in December after determining it wasn’t a safe environment for patients. Staffing turnover remains a problem, and KDADS has floated the idea of privatizing the hospital, while still pursuing Medicare recertification.

Photo by KHI News Service Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees labor union, says the state should regularly monitor staffing levels at its psychiatric hospitals.

View larger photo

Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing most classified employees of state agencies, said KOSE supports Senate Bill 477, but argued the committee should also examine House Bill 2559.

House Bill 2559 would require state agencies to develop minimum safe staffing levels, report whether they met those levels and implement recruiting and retention plans if they fall below minimum staffing for two months. It hasn’t had a hearing in the House Appropriations committee.

Regular reports on staffing could be a “canary in the coal mine” to alert legislators to problems before anyone gets hurt, Proctor said.

“I think we can all agree that there are staffing, communication, safety and morale issues at the state hospitals,” she said. “Had you been receiving regular staffing reports, you would have known we were on the road to disaster at both Osawatomie and Larned.”